The University of Illinois Athletic Department announced that Nicole Evans of the softball team and Joe Spencer of the football team garnered the prestigious Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor Monday night at the Fighting Illini Oskee Awards Celebration held at State Farm Center.
This year marks the 103rd anniversary of the Big Ten Medal of Honor, awarded annually to one male and one female student-athlete from the graduating class of each member institution who has demonstrated excellence on and off the field throughout their college career. The conference's most exclusive award was the first of its kind in intercollegiate athletics to recognize academic and athletic excellence.
On the field, Evans leads the nationally-ranked Illini in batting average (.380), slugging percentage (.853), on-base percentage (.491), RBIs (53), home runs (15), total bases (110) and walks (23) this season. Evans is the Illinois career leader in RBI with 171 and is second in career home runs (50), just one off the UI all-time record. In 2016, Evans was a National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) First-Team All-Midwest and Second-Team All-Big Ten honoree, helping lead the Illini to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010 while pacing the team in almost every offensive category, including batting average (.337), hits (62), doubles (18), home runs (12), RBI (53), total bases (122) and slugging percentage (.663).
The Glen Ellyn, Ill., native owns a 3.8 cumulative GPA in kinesiology and is a two-time NFCA All-America Scholar-Athlete and Academic All-Big Ten selection, while also being named a 2016 Big Ten Distinguished Scholar. Earlier this spring, Evans was named Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year, named after the tennis legend to honor undergraduate students of color who best exemplify academic and athletic achievement. Looking ahead to her future, Evans plans to be a physician assistant and has already been accepted into the master's program at Illinois.
Along with her athletic and academic achievements, Evans has also put an emphasis on community service and giving back, working with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Down Syndrome Network as well as volunteering around the Champaign-Urbana community and communities the Illini visit during road trips. Evans was chosen to serve on the African American Cultural Center Director Search Committee as a student representative last fall and assists as a student-athlete representative for the University Athletic Gender Equity Committee.
"Nicole is an outstanding individual with unlimited potential," said Tyra Perry, Illinois head softball coach. "She is a person of character and purpose. Her relentless work ethic has led our program to higher heights. Nicole not only interacts well with her peers, but also with aspiring young athletes, taking special interest in teaching kids about the sport of softball and about life as a student-athlete. Nicole is a young woman with a healthy sense of who she is and where she would like to go in life. My favorite comment when asked about Nicole is that she could run for president and I would be first in line to vote for her."
Spencer was a football team captain in 2016 and earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors by the media. He started 37 games during his Illinois career, including 11 this season at center. Spencer is enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Illinois after earning a bachelor's degree in finance in May 2016. He was awarded the John Wooden Citizen Cup earlier this month, a prestigious natioinal award given to the most outstanding role model among college student-athletes.
Spencer's work in the community and the classroom has been incredible during his five years in Champaign. The 2016 Big Ten Sportsmanship Award and Fighting Illini Spirit Award honoree's long list of community involvement includes serving as president of Illinois' Uplifting Athletes chapter, president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, raising nearly $40,000 for charity in two years by organizing the Illini's "Lift for Life," helping organize Illinois' student-athlete variety show that has raised over $80,000 in the last five years, being a "Big" at the local Big Brothers Big Sisters, spearheading the Leadership Summit for local middle school students, volunteering at the Special Olympics, and visiting nearly every elementary school in Champaign-Urbana.
"In one word, Joe is exceptional," said Lovie Smith, Illinois head football coach. "He is the true epitome of the term student-athlete. His accomplishments as both a student and a football player speak for themselves. Joe is not just a leader on our football team, but in the athletic department, university, and community. He served as a leader and role model for all student-athletes and gave countless hours in the community visiting schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. Joe is as well respected as any student-athlete has been on our campus. It has been a true privilege to know and coach Joe Spencer."