DURHAM, N.C. -- The two Duke teams most ravaged by physical calamities last year were the big boys in the brightest spotlights.
Coach David Cutcliffe’s football contingent lost three fifth-year senior captains — including a quarterback and an All-American — and saw its hopes for a fifth straight bowl appearance drop weekly in direct proportion to the rising body count in the training room.
The Duke basketball narrative, meanwhile, was inextricably tied to health issues — freshmen set back early in the year, veterans afflicted for various stints, even coach Mike Krzyzewski’s seven-game absence for back surgery — to the point that the Blue Devils endured too many disruptions to reach NCAA title potential.
But outside of Cutcliffe and Krzyzewski, no Duke coach weathered more injury damage in 2016-17 than veteran women’s soccer head man Robbie Church.
Church entered last fall with a roster that featured 10 starters returning from a 2015 team that played for the national championship, augmented by a sterling recruiting class. Expectations for a return to the College Cup were rampant, inside and outside the program.
Then came the last two weeks of September, when three of those starters made their final appearances of the season:
• In the ACC opener against Boston College, sophomore Kayla McCoy scored the game-winning goal on a sliding shot, then popped up from the turf and popped her left Achilles in the process.
• In preparation for ACC match No. 4 against Syracuse, sophomore Taylor Racioppi absorbed blunt force trauma to her leg in a freak practice mishap, suffering a fractured fibula.
• In between those two blows, senior Rebecca Quinn was shut down for the season with a toe problem that had limited her to only four matches since returning from the Rio Olympics, where she had helped Canada to a bronze medal.
With perhaps their deepest team ever, the Blue Devils were able to survive and thrive despite the loss of their most accomplished performer and two prized playmakers. Embracing a next-man-up mindset, they posted a 15-5-3 overall record and a 7-2-1 ACC mark while earning three NCAA wins to reach the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
And now, with a new season on the immediate horizon, it’s time to recognize the silver lining from 2016’s misfortunes: the return of three all-star caliber players to full health, hungrier than ever to wear Duke across their chests once more.
“I love playing for Duke and I’ve missed it a lot,” said Racioppi. “I haven’t played a game obviously in a long time. I’m really mostly excited about getting back on the field with my teammates because they are my favorite people in the world, on and off the field. The excitement has just been growing and growing all summer.”
Consider McCoy equally eager to return to action. On more than one occasion she has ventured alone at night to Koskinen Stadium, sat at the top of the bleachers by Kennedy Tower and gazed out on the field in darkness — envisioning the announcement of the starting lineups, the presentation of the national anthem and the thrill of playing soccer with her teammates again.
“It gets me so excited because it’s been way too long since I played with my team, way too long since I scored a goal in a big game,” she said. “I am so ready to get out there. I’m trying not to set too many super high expectations for myself, but rather I’m trying to just have fun and enjoy it because you never know when it’s going to be taken away from you. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned.”
McCoy had plenty of time to ponder life’s lessons during the long road back from her Achilles operation last September. The recovery process included weeks with a protective boot and crutches to protect the surgery site… long months of slowly strengthening an atrophied calf muscle and regaining ankle flexibility… and the gradual return to running, jumping, cutting and kicking a soccer ball — each stage closely monitored to both challenge her limits and encourage her progress.
Multiple weekly visits with soccer trainer Kristi Hall and physical therapist Brett Aefsky eventually led to McCoy being cleared for action by the end of Duke’s spring practice period in March. She even scored a goal during a brief stint against the Washington Spirit in an exhibition match.
“She’s out there jumping and doing her thing, laying it on the line. That was awesome to see,” said Aefsky, who noted that McCoy’s hunger to recover was evident in every one of their therapy sessions.
“Kayla was fearless her whole rehab, really fun to work with,” he said. “Lots of times after a surgery where somebody is out for more than a month, you have return-to-sport testing and one of the things that’s typically used is the hop test. A lot of times the first time somebody is asked to hop for distance, they want a warmup, they’ve got a (hesitant) look on their face. But Kayla just, boom, went for it. And she tested well.”
According to Aefsky, tissue healing from an Achilles surgery typically requires six months, with another three to six months needed for the athlete to become performance-ready. “Our goal was to get her comfortable playing by the end of the spring so she didn’t have to first do it during the fall season,” he said. “She was able to participate a little bit, get some limited minutes that exposed her to a couple games, so that this summer she could feel confident with her training.”
McCoy is doing her summer training on campus with a handful of teammates while also juggling some course work and a research position in a psychology clinic (she’s a pre-med student). She credits a community of support — trainers, therapists, coaches, teammates — for helping her bounce back from such an emotional ordeal.
“Right after it happened I had trouble pulling myself together because I was so devastated,” she recalled. “The season wasn’t even half over yet and the physician assistant on the sideline was telling me, ‘I think it’s your Achilles, you’re going to need surgery.’ So there goes that — we had such big plans for the season and for myself, so that was definitely devastating.
“But I remember having my team and my coaches around me. My dad and my sister were at that game, so they were there for me to calm me down, telling me I would be fine and that I would come back from this. That really helped to put everything in perspective, like this is just a moment in time and I’m going to get past it. Then hopefully on the other side I’ll come out stronger and just as good as before.”
McCoy was pretty good before, as was Racioppi before breaking her leg. When they arrived at Duke together in the fall of 2015, Racioppi was ranked as the No. 2 recruit in the country and McCoy No. 3. Their impact was immediate, with McCoy leading the Blue Devils in goals and Racioppi topping the team in shots and points. Combined, they notched the game-winners in half of their squad’s 14 victories.
Both also had enjoyed opportunities to train and play with a variety of national teams over their years in the sport. Racioppi in particular brought a long list of U.S. appearances with her to college. She played in the FIFA U20 World Cup in 2014 when she was only 17, and last fall she could have returned to that event as a key U.S. performer. But the training and tournament overlapped too much with Duke’s fall semester, so she elected to remain in school to stay on track academically.
Then the leg injury derailed the soccer portion of Racioppi’s fall, after a solid start that included three goals and five assists in the first 11 matches. She missed the final 12, mostly watching alongside McCoy, who missed the final 14, and Quinn, who wound up getting a medical redshirt. Somewhat ironically, all three connected on the BC goal that ended McCoy’s season, the ball going from Quinn to Racioppi to McCoy to break a 2-2 tie with under 13 minutes to play.
The rest of the year, they were left to connect in different ways through the shared experiences of rehab, observation and supporting freshmen such as Ella Stevens and Olivia Erlbeck, who stepped into bigger roles in their absence.
“Taylor and I have always been pretty close but we literally got hurt a week apart from each other, and both of us with bizarre injuries, so we spent a lot of time on the sideline together,” McCoy said. “We spent a lot of time talking about our roles on the team now that we couldn’t contribute on the field. So yeah, we bonded through it. Having someone to go through it with — like me, her and Quinny were all going through similar things together — made it so much easier than having to do it by myself.”
Quinn and Racioppi were back to full strength this spring. Quinn, in fact, made several appearances for the Canada National Team with matches in Sweden, Germany, Portugal and in her hometown of Toronto. In addition to Duke’s spring drills, Racioppi was invited to join the U.S. U23 National Team for an event in Portland. She then spent the first half of her summer break training at home in New Jersey with the Sky Blue pro club and at a private gym.
When Duke’s preseason camp convenes later in the summer, the three starters who missed so much last year will be part of one of the most talented rosters in school history. Church’s recruiting over the past four years has brought in the No. 1 forward and the No. 1 defender from the prep class of 2014 (Imani Dorsey and Morgan Reid); the No. 1 forward and No. 2 midfielder from 2015 (McCoy and Racioppi); the No. 1 goalkeeper and No. 4 midfielder from 2016 (Brooke Heinsohn and Mia Gyau); and the No. 4 midfielder and No. 5 defender of 2017 (Karlie Paschall and Caitlin Cosme). Six other Blue Devils were either high school All-America selections or the player of the year in their home states. The returnees anticipate extremely competitive practice sessions to shape one of the elite teams in the country.
“The biggest thing is that everyone who comes into this program buys into the program and what we stand for,” said McCoy. “The year before I got here the rising seniors did a bunch of work on what our team stood for, and that still stands today. We have team values, we’re for each other, we’re going to focus on the team. It’s so much easier said than done, but if you can get a group of people together who are willing to set aside their own personal agenda and look out for the person next to them and the other 29 people on their squad, you’re going to have so much success regardless of the talent level. Then add that talent level we do have, and we’re going to have a really special team.”
Racioppi believes the manner in which all of those talented individuals handle the competition, roles and playing time will determine just how special the group becomes.
“Of course it’s tricky when you do have all these good players, because at the end of the day only 11 people can be on the field,” Racioppi said. “I think it will be a balance of some older players, myself included, finding the time to put the team first no matter what, no matter if I’m playing or not, no matter if I’m starting or not. It will also be really important for the upperclassmen to keep an eye out for the younger players who may be struggling with something like that… I think everyone knows how competitive it’s going to be. I’m really excited to see how it all works out.”
That heightened sense of excitement and eagerness seems palpable among those returning from injury as well as the rest of the roster.
“Oh yeah there is a lot of hunger on this team,” Racioppi noted. “We have a nice group chat going with the whole team and it’s buzzing everyday on my phone. Everyone’s connected, everyone’s upbeat talking about things we’re excited for. We send videos to introduce the upperclassmen to the freshmen if they haven’t met everybody yet. We’re already trying to build the chemistry and I think that’s a real testament to how excited we are and how ready we want to be when we get there.”