Taylor Racioppi elected to return to the No. 2 Blue Devils instead of competing in the U20 World Cup this fall—and probably not for the reason you might expect. 

The sophomore passed up the chance to compete with the U.S. U20 national team from Nov. 13 to Dec. 3 in Papua New Guinea, a period that almost entirely overlaps with the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils’ points leader with seven goals and six assists last year, Racioppi’s decision to skip the international event gave Duke 10 returning starters from the team that went to last year’s national title game.

But pursuing a collegiate national championship was a secondary factor for the Ocean Township, N.J., native. 

“The real decision came back to academics for me,” Racioppi said. “Missing a semester of school, that was a big hit to my personal academic goals, and to be able to stay at Duke and take those classes and have a support system around me, still getting awesome training of course with our team—I feel good about it.”

A certified EMT who is considering going to medical school, Racioppi has gained plenty of international experience as one of the top young players in the country. She came to Durham as the No. 2 recruit in the nation, already having played for the U15, U17 and U18 national teams. The All-ACC academic team performer was also the second-youngest member of the American team at the 2014 U20 World Cup, making appearances in two of the team’s four games.

In addition to offering another chance to represent her country, playing for the U20 team again this year would have allowed Racioppi to showcase her skills at an international level and train with many of the other top players in the country. Players from other top-15 teams such as Penn State—the defending national champion—Virginia, Florida and North Carolina said yes to the opportunity, hampering their college teams this year with the hope that they will return even better in 2017 after the international experience. 

“[It] was the hardest decision of my life,” Racioppi said. “To be torn between a national team opportunity and the college you play for…. I talked to my parents, my coaches—I hit up everybody for some answers.”

Although Racioppi is not competing with the U20 national team this year, Duke could still have a player in Papua New Guinea.

Freshman Brooke Heinsohn, the No. 1 goalkeeper in the Class of 2016, is redshirting this season behind starter and 2015 College Cup Most Outstanding Player on Defense E.J. Proctor. The Norfolk, Mass., native will battle for a spot on the final U20 roster from Sept. 1 to Sept. 19 in the team’s training camp as Racioppi and the Blue Devils navigate the early part of their schedule. 

Duke is 3-1 so far this year, with Racioppi recording one goal and four assists early in her sophomore campaign.

“She’s one of the best players on our team, and her creativity and spark is essential to our attack,” said senior forward Toni Payne, who trained with the U20 team in 2014 and U23 team this summer.

Blue Devil head coach Robbie Church and company planned for Racioppi’s absence but are taking full advantage of her unique skillset. The sophomore played outside with more defensive responsibilities in Duke’s first three games, then played forward Sunday in the Blue Devils’ bounce-back win against Coastal Carolina coming off a loss at Arkansas.

Duke will now look to beat No. 8 North Carolina at Koskinen Stadium for the first time ever in its next game Friday. The Tar Heels are missing two of their most talented players—freshman Taylor Otto and leading returning goal scorer Jessie Scarpa—because of the U20 World Cup, a reminder of the unique circumstances affecting the 2016 women’s soccer season. 

Of the five U20 World Cups that have been contested, four have taken place in the summer, and for the fifth college players were able to split their season with the national team. 

“It’s a tough decision—whether to play for your country or come back and play for Duke,” said senior defender Christina Gibbons, Racioppi’s former U20 teammate in 2014. “It came down to really academics and what she’s trying to do going forward, which I really respect. And I think she did what’s best for her, which is awesome.”

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.

Correction: This article was updated to clarify that Racioppi led the team in points. The Chronicle regrets the error.