Sunday 18 August, 2019

FRANCE 2019: The magic of Khadija Shaw

Khadija Shaw (left)) of Jamaica celebrates after scoring against Panama in the third place match of the Concaccaf Women's Championship on October 17, 2018 at the Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
The Reggae Girlz created history on on the day by becoming the first Caribbean team to reach the FIFA Women's World Cup.They defeated Panama  4-2 on penalties.

Khadija Shaw (left)) of Jamaica celebrates after scoring against Panama in the third place match of the Concaccaf Women's Championship on October 17, 2018 at the Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The Reggae Girlz created history on on the day by becoming the first Caribbean team to reach the FIFA Women's World Cup.They defeated Panama 4-2 on penalties.

Brian Pensky still remembers seeing Khadija Shaw work her magic at the junior college level. 

It had started with a text message, a tip from a friend that there was a Jamaican player at East Florida State College the Tennessee coach really should keep an eye on.

“Lifted a ball up, popped it over the top of a center midfielder, popped it over the top of another central midfielder and then dribbled her and finished it,” the Tennessee football head coach said. “And you just don’t see that in this country.”

You don’t see it, that is, unless it’s being done by “Bunny” Shaw. The 22-year-old forward joined Pensky’s Tennessee program and has continued to pull the same sort of tricks that leave defenders asking how she did it. 

“The question is at what level can you do things like that? At what level can players pull off tricks and moves like that and she continued to do the same here,” Pensky said. “Not only did she score 35 goals, she scored highlight-reel goals. I think she can continue to do it at a higher level.”

She already has. Just last month Shaw scored a goal worthy of racking up YouTube views, getting the ball in her own half during a friendly against South Africa. She slides past the first woman and then turns on the jets. A center back hopelessly leaves her feet but gets nothing but air. The first defender is back in the picture, bravely, but as she, the second center back and the goalkeeper converge on Shaw, the forward pops it into the back of the net.

It was the perfect display of what Shaw means to the Reggae Girlz - and why with her leading the line coach Hue Menzies feels like his team can always get something out of a game even if it’s against group opponents Brazil, Italy, and Australia.

“Having Khadija up front gives us enough to at least cash in on anything that keeps us in games,” he told Concacaf.com. “She’s got the ability to take over the game. She showed it the game against South Africa.”

She’ll have the chance to do more in France, though she’s currently dealing with a knock suffered against Scotland in a friendly match before the tournament. Even in that game, she scored two goals. 

Don’t get the impression, though, that it’s been a straight line to success for Shaw. Shaw isn’t the only member of the Reggae Girlz who had a difficult upbringing, but even so, she stands out as someone who kept with the game and now is reaping the rewards.

“She exemplifies what the team is about. It’s a bunch of kids who didn’t have much growing up and just have put in hard work and commitment, made sacrifices and changing lifestyles to get to the point,” Menzies said. “A lot of these kids have natural abilities, it’s just environment they need to be in. She’s doing great.”

“She’s the leading scorer in the qualifiers coming right into the World Cup. She’s the leading scorer in the world, so we depend on her a lot.”

Shaw’s natural abilities meant she wasn’t always put up top. When Pensky saw her score that goal, she was playing as a central midfielder. At times, the 5’11” Shaw even was asked to play at center back.

At Tennessee, Pensky knew exactly where he wanted Shaw to play: As close to the goal as possible.

“I love to play the 10, I love to be the attacking midfielder,” Shaw told Pensky.

“We’ll give you a shot there but we’re going to also look at you as a 9 because we don’t think center backs can deal with you,” he said. 

The coach’s instincts proved to be well-tuned.

“Her third or fourth game in the fall of ’17 at Tennessee, she kind of had a breakout game and scored three goals, all on kind of individual efforts, doing special things, beating kids off the dribble, scoring out of the air with her head,” the coach continued. “At that point, you knew that she’s different.  She’s unique.”

Pensky compared Shaw to Zion Williamson, the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, with both athletes physically gifted but able to play like a smaller player - Shaw like a shifty, agile winger and Williamson running the point and making smart passes.

Shaw won’t be in a draft, but rather is set to continue her career in Europe. Once her playing career comes to an end, she’ll be able to put her communications degree from Tennessee to full use.

Even as she scored more goals than any other player in the world during World Cup qualification and missed time to help not only the Reggae Girlz but also to help the Vols to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history, Shaw wowed the coaching staff not only with her amazing goals but with her effort to finish her education.

“Probably the thing that has impressed me most about Bunny is what she’s done in the classroom,” Pensky said. 

Not that she’ll be looking for a job outside the game any time soon, though. “Bunny is a young 22 years old. I can’t wait to see what Bunny Shaw looks like at 27,” her college coach said.”I really think her potential … I truly think this is a unique one given all the different variables and looking at how she’s built and her skillset. This kid can play the game for a long time.”

That’s good news for fans in the Concacaf region, who should have a steady stream of jaw-dropping, highlight-reel goals to enjoy.

The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup will run from June 7 to July 7 and will be the eighth edition.

Jamaica's Reggae Girlz will open their debut campaign on June 9 against a tough Brazillian side, which is ranked number 10 in the world, at the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble.

Things will not get any easier for the 53rd ranked Girlz when they face the Italians, ranked at number 15 at the Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims on June 14, before wrapping up their first round Group C fixtures against Australia, which is ranked number six in the world, once again at the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble, on June 18.

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