Athletics News
#TBT Big Ten Medal of Honor - Jonelle Polk 1987

March 13, 2014

By Lexi Shurilla, staff writer | @SusanAlexisS

Illinois Big Ten Medal of Honor Winners

One of the most prestigious conference awards in college athletics, the Big Ten Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1915 to one student-athlete from the graduating class of each university who had "attained the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work." In 2014, the conference celebrates the 100th anniversary of this prestigious award.

Jonelle Polk

One of the finest female athletes ever to come out of Peoria, Jonelle Polk (McCloud) began playing basketball in middle school. After winning four letters each in track and basketball at Peoria Manual, the 6-foot-3 Polk decided to continue her basketball journey close to home at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Polk became one of the Big Ten's most skilled players while leading Illinois in scoring and rebounding between 1984 and 1987. She went on to score 1,984 points and grab 833 rebounds as an Illini, both standing as school records for over 10 years before being broken. She was Illinois' all-time leader in scoring for both men and women until Deon Thomas went over 2,000 points in the 1993-94 season.

Polk was named a Fast Break All-American by the American Women's Sports Foundation in 1986 and was a two-time All-Big Ten selection. She was named Big Ten player of the week five times over her last two seasons, was a member of the United States pre-Olympic National Selection team in 1987 and was selected to the Illinois all-decade team for the 1980s. Also a fine student, she won the Big Ten's Medal of Honor in 1987, signifying excellence in both athletics and academics.

After receiving her bachelor's degree from Illinois, Polk continued in basketball while playing overseas for four years, taking the court in places such as France, Italy, and Germany and on the U.S. select team in Korea.

In 1991, Polk returned to the States and worked on her master's degree in sports administration at Northern Illinois, where she served as a student assistant under Jane Albright for the Huskies women's basketball team. Following her time at NIU, she spent a year as a full-time assistant at Florida State, where she met her husband, Daniel McCloud. Once she received a job offer to coach at Bradley University in her hometown, Polk and her fiancé decided to move back to Peoria.

Jonelle Polk Highlights and Achievements
 Hometown: Peoria, Illinois

 Illinois career: 1984-1987

 Medal of Honor Winner: 1987

 Two-time All-Big Ten

 Illinois All-Decade team (1980s)

 Ended her career as Illinois' all-time leading scorer for men and women

 Now ranks third in Illini women's basketball history in scoring and fourth in rebounding

 Founder and owner of J.E.M.S. Basketball

After her time at Bradley, Polk returned to her high school alma mater as the head basketball coach at Peoria Manual High School, where she also served as Assistant Project Director of the 21st Century After-School Program, which provides kids with a place to go from 3-6 p.m. each day.

Polk has worked as the manager at Peoria Park District's Proctor Recreation Center for the past seven years, and is more interested in detailing the accomplishments of the young people in her life than her own. Her goal at Proctor Recreation Center is to "provide a safe, fun place for young people after school, filled with recreational activities and a place to do homework."

The mother of two daughters - Jonae and Jaida - Polk began a travel team in 2006 called J.E.M.S., which stands for Journey to Empowerment through Motivation and Self-esteem. As the president and founder, Polk leads a group of young girls who either aspire to improve their basketball skills or simply wish to stay active in something positive. J.E.M.S. enjoys a long-standing relationship with area community centers and schools, and through this relationship is able to offer affordable basketball opportunities for students. The goal and mission is to "teach the fundamentals of basketball while developing strong, confident young ladies."

In addition to her work at Proctor Center, Polk serves on the Board of Directors for the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame and for the American Red Cross. She and her husband, who is working on his doctorate degree, and their daughters, live in Peoria.

To learn more about J.E.M.S Basketball, please visit for more information.