Finally the pieces came together this season for Illinois' Jacqueline Quade. And no, she's not talking about the unfinished jigsaw puzzle on a mat underneath her couch.
The 6-foot-2 junior is a complete player, confident in all six rotations for the first time in her volleyball career. That's one of the biggest reasons why Illinois is not only in the Sweet 16, but seeded third and favored to advance to the final four in Minneapolis. The Illini last reached the final destination in 2011 as national runner-up.
The No. 3 seeds face No. 14 Marquette in Friday's noon regional semifinal at Huff Hall. The winner meets either No. 6 Wisconsin or unseeded San Diego on Saturday for a berth in the national semifinals.
While the Illini made it to the regional semifinal a year ago, that team was not in the class of this group, which is 30-3 and on a 15-game winning streak that includes victories over Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State, all teams that remain in the NCAA tournament.
Illinois wins behind Jordyn Poulter, the first Illini player to receive Big Ten setter honors (she shared the honor with Minnesota's Samantha Seliger-Swenson); Ali Bastianelli, the top blocker in program history; and Quade, whose 4.13 kills per set pace the offense.
But the other numbers that are significant for Quade: 233 digs, 59 blocks and 29 service aces.
She's caught the eye of Nebraska's John Cook, who noted, "Quade's having a player-of-the-year type season."
Quade played one full rotation last season before subbing out because serve-receive turned into serve-receive error too frequently for coach Chris Tamas' liking.
"For us to take the next step, we told her she needed to accept the six-rotation role," Tamas said. "She had to be a back-row player and up her defensive game. She took it to heart and did all the work in the spring and the summer when no one was around. She's just become a steady force, improving every day she's been out there."
"I didn't have much experience with serve-receive," Quade said. "It's such a hard skill to learn. It requires so much attention on every single part of it. You mess up one thing and you mess up the whole pass. ... As a hitter, if you are in the reception pattern, they're coming after you every single time because they want you to pass the ball."
Quade dedicated herself to the repetition necessary so that now she no longer fears anyone picking on her. She's a natural problem solver with an active mind, one reason why jigsaw puzzles appeal to her over nesting in front of the TV (she makes an exception for "This is Us").
"Puzzles are a mutual love we share," said her roommate, Caroline Welsh, a junior defensive specialist. "We put on Justin Bieber or Pandora and invite a few friends over. It's a fun thing to do instead of going out at night."
Puzzles also provide a respite from Quade's demanding load in the Gies College of Business. Her passion for marketing helps her excel at one of the nation's top business schools. Quade was All-Academic Big Ten her sophomore season.
"All my classes are so interesting; I really love the field," she said. "I could see myself doing sports marketing. I'm in a branding class right now that I like a lot, so maybe I could do something with that."
With the Illini gearing up to host a regional for the first time since 2013, Quade said it's been a surreal week. She came to the school wanting to win a national championship. After one season, she found herself transitioning to a new coach when Kevin Hambly left Illinois to take the job at Stanford. The uncertainty of playing for someone who didn't recruit her weighed on Quade, but she developed trust with Tamas and all of her teammates, in particular Poulter.
The co-setter of the year in the Big Ten doesn't hesitate to look for Quade in a big moment.
At Wisconsin, Illinois fought off eight set points in the third set -- Quade had six of her match-high 26 kills in that stretch -- and the Illini won the set 35-33 and beat the Badgers for the first time since 2013.
"Knowing that she felt comfortable enough to go to me in those situations where our back was up against the wall and she had to trust in me to get things done really solidifies that trust in each other," Quade said.
The pair did more damage against Penn State when the Illini won 3-2 behind a career-best 29 kills from Quade.
"These last two years her confidence is at a whole other level and she's embodied this really strong six-rotation outside," Poulter said.
"It's so exciting to be in this spot with this team," Quade said. "I think we can do it. I'm looking forward to our upcoming games to see what we can do."
While the demands of class and volleyball don't leave much time for that 1,500-piece puzzle, a landscape of a European city, rest assured it will get done. She and Welch have another on deck that they bought during the team's trip to Seattle in September.
"It's a Starbucks one; super cool," Quade said.
"Potentially," she added, they might pair together to complete one of Minneapolis.
That is, if the pieces fit this weekend.