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How do you replace the irreplaceable?

That was the question facing Nicole Shanahan on Saturday night as she stepped into Dana Rettke’s middle blocker spot for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team.

Her answer was to be the best Nicole Shanahan she could be. And that proved plenty good enough as she contributed her share to the No. 6 Badgers’ sweep of Northwestern 25-22, 25-21, 25-17 before a full house at the UW Field House.

With Rettke, the 6-foot-8 two-time All-American on the bench with a walking boot on her left foot, coach Kelly Sheffield called upon Shanahan and she responded with five kills, four blocks and a service ace in her first action since Sept. 14.

Shanahan, a 6-2 junior walk-on from Oconomowoc, started two matches early in the season in place of the injured Madison Duello but hadn’t seen any court time since making a cameo appearance against Clemson.

But she was ready to go when she saw Rettke in the walking boot Saturday morning.

“To be completely honest, I was really calm going into the game today because I’ve been in this position before,” Shanahan said. “I know my team has faith in me, I know Kelly has faith in me and all the coaching staff. I just needed to execute, I needed to play how I play, how Badgers play. I was really confident.”

That’s the attitude Sheffield expects from his bench players, even when one is called upon to fill in for one of the best players in the country.

“I thought Nic came in and gave us some positive contributions, which is what we expect,” Sheffield said. “Nicole sits there, talks about how confident she was going out there. This was the first time she’s ever served in a college match. She’s going in there and playing the same position that our All-American workhorse does, but yet she sits there and says she’s confident in herself and her abilities.

“And there’s no faking it. You look in her eyes and how she moves, you know she’s confident. That confidence comes from the work that you’re putting in every single day. She works hard, she prepares, she knows the scouting report. So when she gets here the day of the match and you say she’s going in the starting lineup, she doesn’t flinch because she’s prepared for the moment.”

Sheffield said he has no timetable yet for when Rettke will be able to return.

The Badgers (12-4, 8-0 Big Ten) needed contributions across the board to fight off the upset-minded Wildcats (9-11, 0-8).

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Coming off a hard-fought five set victory over Illinois on Friday night, the Badgers found themselves trailing 21-16 in the first set before finishing on a 9-1 run.

Northwestern also led late in the second set 19-18 before UW put together a 7-2 finishing run that included four of junior Grace Loberg’s match-high 14 kills.

Junior setter Sydney Hilley said those rallies, on the heels of a comeback win after trailing Illinois 2-1 the previous night, show the progress the team has made since early in the season.

“It just shows that we’re battle tested now,” Hilley said. “When we’re down we don’t give up, like we might’ve done earlier in the season. We fight back and I think that’s something that brings us a lot of confidence and something I hope we continue to do.”

Freshman Temi Thomas-Ailara led the Wildcats with 12 kills, but she also had 10 hitting errors and hit just .043. The Badgers also handled her powerful topspin serve flawlessly.

“That kid Temi is an unbelievable, gifted volleyball player,” Sheffield said. “She got a fair amount of kills, big-time swings. But I thought our backcourt really battled with her. We dug some really nice balls, we picked up some off-speed shots.

“We made her work and I think probably frustrated her a little bit into some of those hitting errors. They lean on her an awful lot. That serve has more pace than anybody else’s serve that we see all year.”

Northwestern 22 20 17

Wisconsin 25 25 25

NORTHWESTERN (kills-digs-blocks) — Lee 0-9-0, Ehman 0-3-0, McNulty 0-10-0, Wang 0-2-0, Thomas-Ailara 12-8-1, Cronister 0-12-0, Williams 5-0-1, Grbac 6-0-1, Lesiak 0-0-0, Walker 10-0-2, Becker 3-0-2. Totals 36-44-4.

WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-8-0, Hilley 2-5-2, MacDonald 0-0-0, Ashburn 0-5-0, Shanahan 5-0-4, Duello 4-3-3, Clark 0-14-0, Hart 6-0-4, Dodge 0-3-0, Loberg 14-4-1, Haggerty 8-2-1. Totals 39-44-8.

Hitting percentage — N .178, W .255. Aces — N 0, W 8 (Ashburn 3). Assists — N 31 (McNulty 26), W 36 (Hilley 30). Att. — 7,052.

Bucky!

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