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Bunny Shaw is the transformational talent that could lift Jamaica to its first World Cup

If the Reggae Girlz qualify for their first ever World Cup, it’ll be down to 21-year-old Shaw’s dominant play. She’s a transformational talent for her country, and she’s well on her way from Tennessee to the pros.

Soccer: 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship-Jamaica at Costa Rica Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Jamaica has a chance to make the country’s first ever women’s World Cup on Sunday, and 21-year-old attacker Khadija “Bunny” Shaw is the driving force behind their historic campaign.

Shaw isn’t even a professional yet — she’ll resume her attempts to fire Tennessee into the NCAA Tournament when qualifying ends — but she’s already proving to be a transformational talent for a nation with no significant history in international women’s soccer.

Coming into the final stage of World Cup qualifying, the semifinal matchups were widely assumed to be set in stone. The scenario everyone envisioned went like this: the United States would play Costa Rica, and Canada would play Mexico. The U.S. and Canada would win to seal their World Cup places, then meet in the final for bragging rights. Costa Rica and Mexico would play in the third place match for CONCACAF’s last automatic qualifying spot.

That’s not what happened at all.

Panama upset Mexico, with 17-year-old goalkeeper Yenith Bailey taking up a starring role, while Jamaica pulled off a stunning 1-0 victory over Costa Rica to set up a date with the Americans. Jamaica’s winning goal was scored by Shaw, who leads all players on the planet with 18 goals in World Cup qualifying, including preliminary rounds.

“We knew we had to win this game no matter what,” Shaw told reporters after the Costa Rica win. “As the game went on we didn’t play too well, but goals matter. And once we can get the win, that’s all that matters.”

It’s fitting that Shaw scored the biggest goal of her young career against Costa Rica, a team that four years ago was positioned similarly to Jamaica. Underfunded and underestimated, Las Ticas have been led by their own singular talent in Shirley Cruz for over a decade. Cruz made the jump to powerhouse club Olympique Lyonnais in France when she was just 19, but didn’t have much talent around her on the national team. But the players that Cruz inspired started to break through when she was in her late 20s, and with their help, Cruz guided her team to the 2015 World Cup.

“Shirley is like the banner of women’s football and the representation of all those players who see her for what she is. As the maximum [one can achieve],” Costa Rican sports reporter Fiorella Masís said of Cruz in 2017. “In a few years maybe she will be recognized in sports galleries, described as the woman who opened the doors to others.”

Shaw isn’t supposed to make the World Cup or become a first round NWSL draft pick, despite clearly being talented enough to do both, but Cruz was never supposed to achieve what she did either. This is the reality of women’s soccer in most countries — to reach the highest level of the game, players have to overcome obstacles that players of similar talent in the United States or western Europe are never even forced to consider.

But Shaw is an exceptional talent, capable of elevating the players around her and filling any role for her coaches. Case in point: She has played striker for Tennessee and Jamaica all year, but against a struggling Cuba, she moved back to midfield and gave key teammates a rest after back-to-back World Cup qualifying games.

“We trust the coaching staff and the coaching staff trusts us,” Shaw told reporters after the game when asked about the heavily rotated lineup. “If [head coach Merron Gordon] feels like the team that he put out there can get the job done, then that’s what happens. We just have to trust each other and know that we’re a team. We win together and we lose together.”

From her new position, Shaw found other ways to impact the game, scoring a free kick and recording two gorgeous assists.

“There’s value in versatility as you go to the higher levels and continue to advance in your career,” Brian Pensky, Shaw’s coach at the University of Tennessee, tells SB Nation. “While Bunny is playing up top now and scoring goals for her country, I think she could make a very good center midfielder. I think she could make a very good center back, because of her brain and her feet.”

That’s just how good Shaw is — she can do anything Jamaica needs her to do without any discernible dropoff in her impact. But as talented as she is, it’s amazing that she ever got here at all.

“I had a tough life growing up,” Shaw told Al Lesar of Knox News in 2017. “I was in an environment that was very violent. I had to cut all that out and focus on my soccer career. It was difficult at times. Coming from practice, I would be walking into crime scenes. It was hard for me knowing that I’m witnessing what’s happening.”

Four of Shaw’s seven siblings have died — three to gun violence and one to a car accident. She credits her brothers for her love of soccer, and her distinctive nickname “Bunny,” inspired by her love of carrots.

“I hated it. I was so mad at him. I told him to never, ever call me that,” Shaw told Rhiannon Potkey of the Tennessee Ledger. “But he went outside and told all my friends, so everyone started saying, ‘Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny’ ... It went from school to club to international to everywhere. It’s funny because now everyone calls me just Bunny, and my brother calls me Bugs.”

It takes a special kind of personality to turn something like that nickname, initially embarrassing, into a positive. That personality trait seems to translate to the way Shaw approaches her soccer career as well.

Playing high school soccer in Jamaica, Shaw wasn’t on the radar of most big-time college programs. She received an offer to play for Florida, but was spotted too late to take the SAT, so she enrolled at Eastern Florida State to play junior college soccer. She re-opened her recruitment after her first year of JuCo, and Tennessee quickly became interested.

“Someone had reached out to me, a friend of mine, and told me about her,” Pensky says. “He said you’ve got to see this kid Bunny from Jamaica.”

JuCo ball is miles away from the spotlight, but a 5’11” attack-minded player who’s equally adept at scoring and passing would catch anyone’s eye. Pensky built a relationship with Eastern Florida’s coach, Jeff Carr, who wanted to make sure that Shaw found the right landing spot.

“I think he wanted to find people that he knew he could trust with her, both on the field and off the field, in the classroom. I think he felt confident and comfortable with it, that we would certainly take care of Bunny,” Pensky says.

There was no question that Shaw would be a capable player at SEC level. Besides her performances in JuCo, Pensky was impressed by tape of her early appearances with Jamaica as well. But he didn’t know how quickly she’d become a dominant player.

“She’s done everything and then some, times 10, for us,” Pensky says.

The role that Shaw has both her college and country is unique, and it comes with a lot of travel and responsibility. She has had to play for Jamaica at some inopportune times for the Volunteers, and that’s why Shaw has played just seven college games this season.

Pensky spoke with SB Nation immediately following a frustrating 0-0 draw with Georgia, saying that “having a presence like Bunny, not only can she score, but she can draw and attract attention, and certainly we’re missing that piece.”

Shaw wants to be a leader for both teams, though.

“You have to learn to balance,” Shaw told reporters after scoring the game-winner against Costa Rica. “You’ve gotta give your all every time you go out on the field. For both my college and my country. Once I do that, I know that I’ll have a lot of success.”

Shaw’s talent seems to inspire the players around her to play in a way that one doesn’t normally see inexperienced, up-and-coming teams play. Instead of playing reactionary soccer, Shaw’s teammates make hopeful runs off the ball, confident that she’s talented enough to win the header or play the pass that makes those runs pay off.

Pensky noticed that Shaw’s ability and attitude had a huge influence on his players from day one as well. “Our first image of Bunny was her just juggling a ball last year before practice,” Pensky said in a video produced by Tennessee. “Just watching her mess around with the ball, you look at her and you say, ‘She’s different, she’s unique.’ Then all the sudden, on day two, kids start wanting to juggle with her, right? It made them start trying tricks and things like that. When you’re playing with someone like that, it becomes infectious and contagious.”

There’s no question that Shaw will become a solid professional player, but there are many factors that determine how good her initial opportunity is, and where she gets it. Sunday’s game — and Jamaica’s final match, whether that be for a CONCACAF title or in a third place game for a World Cup spot — gives her a massive platform.

“I think this is good for me because it’s exposure,” Shaw says of playing against the USWNT, and for a place in the World Cup. “And me, knowing that I want to go pro, I think playing at this level, the highest level in the world, it’s exposure for me, and I have to just go out and show the world what I can do.”

Based on what she’s done so far, there’s no question that Shaw is a top college player in the country. If she was American, she would be a top NWSL draft pick. It’s extremely rare to find a 5’11” striker with a midfielder’s technical skills and an impeccable goal-scoring record. “I think she should be [a first-round pick],” Pensky says. “Like I said, the hardest thing to do in the game is to score goals, and she’s proven to be able to do that at a very high level.”

Soccer: 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship-Cuba at Jamaica Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

But she’s not American, and NWSL has foreign player limits.

“They’re not choosing whether Bunny is a top 10 kid in college, they’re choosing whether or not they want to use one of their four international spots on Bunny Shaw when they could potentially have another player,” Pensky says of Shaw’s draft prospects. “She could be in competition with any player in the world.”

To get from high school in Jamaica to a good junior college opportunity, Shaw couldn’t just be very good — she had to be exceptional. The same was the case for getting from JuCo to Tennessee, and for getting Jamaica into the semifinals of World Cup qualifying. And now, she’s faced with a similar situation, just on a higher level. Being the best player on the pitch against the USWNT won’t be enough to get Jamaica into the World Cup. And being the best player in the SEC won’t be enough to make Shaw a first-round draft pick.

Everything that’s happened in her life led up to these pivotal couple of months for her career, during which she might face an intercontinental playoff for a World Cup spot and an NCAA Tournament run, depending on how the next handful of games go for her country and college, respectively.

When asked what Shaw needs to do to make the leap to becoming a world-class professional, Pensky says that she needs a shorter memory.

“I think there are times where — and this is all human beings — they’re in a bit of a rhythm, feeling good and they’re confident and think they can take on the world. And there are other moments where it’s hard, it’s not working, and you get challenged,” Pensky says, adding that the best players in the world are thinking about the next chance instead of dwelling on their mistakes.

Sunday will almost certainly be a moment when Shaw gets challenged. It’s highly unlikely that Jamaica beats the USWNT, even if Shaw outperforms her world-class opponents. If that game ends in disappointment, she’ll need to bounce back immediately — a third-place game against Canada or Panama for a spot in the World Cup awaits, and then a potential last-chance playoff against Argentina for the loser of that match.

She’s likely walking into a test of how well she can put a loss behind her. Based on what she’s already accomplished, it seems unwise to bet against Bunny Shaw.

Charles Olney contributed additional reporting to this story.