Leman, McDonnell Awarded Big Ten Medal of Honor At Scholar-Athlete Banquet

J Leman
J Leman

April 29, 2008

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Football star J Leman (Champaign, Ill.) and soccer standout Mary Therese McDonnell (Orland Park, Ill.) took home the prestigious Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor Tuesday night at the Fighting Illini Scholar-Athlete Awards Banquet, held at the Assembly Hall. The Medal of Honor is awarded annually at each conference school to a male and female senior student-athlete who demonstrates proficiency in scholarship and athletics. The award was first endowed in 1914 and has become the top annual award the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics bestows. Leman and McDonnell were just two of over 120 Fighting Illini student-athletes, managers and athletic trainers recognized at the 18th annual event that honors the best and the brightest that Illinois athletics has to offer.

Football star J Leman's list of accomplishments is staggering. The Champaign native was a consensus NCAA All-American and first team All-Big Ten selection at linebacker after leading Illinois to an incredible turnaround season in 2007, culminating with a trip to the 2008 Rose Bowl. He was a finalist for several national awards, such as the Ronnie Lott Award, Danny Weurffel Award and Draddy Award, and was a semifinalist for many others, including the Butkus Award. Leman put up incredible tackle numbers in each of the last two seasons, but was most known for the leadership and emotion he showed while on the gridiron. He recently signed a free agent contract with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

Even more impressive than his accomplishments on the field, however, is Leman's involvement with the community and success in the classroom. He is very active in his church, The Vineyard, where his parents, Happy and Dianne, serve as pastors. He is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Illini Leadership Academy and Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), while also serving as a regular participant in the DIA Hometown Heroes community service program. In the classroom, Leman earned a bachelor's degree in speech communications in three years and completed a master's in human resource education in December of 2007. He was a second-team Academic All-American in 2007 and is a four-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree.

Mary Therese McDonnell

Mary Therese McDonnell is the second soccer player to earn the Medal of Honor in the last three years, joining Christen Karniski in 2006. McDonnell was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2007 and is a two-time All-Region honoree, while anchoring the stout Illinois defense that posted 12 shutouts in each of the last two seasons. The Orland Park, Ill., native was named team captain and team MVP as a senior after leading the Illini to their fifth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance with a tenacious mentality and competitive spirit that is unmatched.

McDonnell is also very active off the field, taking a lead role in Illinois' Hometown Heroes program, which includes visits to local elementary schools and senior centers and involvement in the Read Across America Day and Crisis Nursery Holiday Shop. She will earn a degree in speech and hearing science next month and has received much acclaim for her academic prowess. She is a 2007 Scholar All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America as well as a Scholar All-Region selection and three time Academic All-Big Ten pick.

In addition to the Big Ten Medal of Honor, several other awards were handed out Tuesday night. The male and female Newcomer of the Year Awards went to football standout Arrelious Benn (Washington, D.C.) and gymnastics star Allison Buckley (Schaumburg, Ill.). Benn was a freshman All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year after breaking Illinois freshman records for receptions and receiving yards and helping the Illini reach the Rose Bowl. Buckley was named Regional Gymnast of the Year and Big Ten Freshman of the Year and became Illinois' first All-American on the balance beam while leading the Orange and Blue to one of their best seasons in program history.

The Fighting Illini Spirit Awards, which are given to the male and female athletes who best exemplify the spirit, courage, effort and dedication of the Fighting Illini, were also handed out at Assembly Hall. Leman took home the male Spirit Award, while senior soccer player Shannon McDonnell (Orland Park, Ill.), sister of Medal of Honor winner Mary Therese McDonnell, took home the female Spirit Award this year.

The men's cross country team and women's swimming & diving teams were recognized for having the top team GPAs among Illinois' 19 varsity sports, and six individuals were honored for having the top GPA in their respective classes. Stephanie Baliga (Rockford, Ill.) of cross country and Jon Asamoah (Park Forest, Ill.) of football had the top GPAs among sophomores, Lori Bjork (Johnston, Iowa) of basketball and golfer Larry Blatt (Orland Park, Ill.) were best among juniors, and tennis standouts Momei Qu (Portland, Ore.) and Ruben Gonzales (Terre Haute, Ind.) were the senior GPA honorees. In addition, women's swimming and diving took home the 2008 Douglas C. Roberts CHAMPS/Life Skills team award for the third-straight year.

Finalists for the Dike Eddleman Male and Female Athlete of the Year Awards were also announced. The Eddleman Award winners will not be announced until the conclusion of the spring sports seasons in June. Female finalists are sophomore Angela Bizzarri (Mason, Ohio), cross country and track & field; junior Julie Crall (Cincinnati, Ohio), gymnastics; senior Ella Masar (Urbana, Ill.), soccer; senior Angelena Mexicano (San Jose, Calif.), softball; senior Seul Ki Park (Northbrook, Ill.), golf; and sophomore Jenna Smith (Bloomington, Minn.), basketball. Male Dike Eddleman Award finalists are senior Wes Haagensen (Belleville, Ill.), gymnastics; senior Trent Hoerr (Morton, Ill.), cross country; junior Kyle Hudson (Mattoon, Ill.), baseball; senior J Leman (Champaign, Ill.), football; junior Gakologelwang Masheto (Muan, Botswana) track & field; junior Michael Poeta (Highwood, Ill.), wrestling; and senior Ryan Rowe (Moline, Ill.), tennis.

In addition to honoring current student-athletes, a pair of former Illini greats was on hand to address the nearly 600 in attendance. Women's basketball star Ashley Berggren, '98, and track & field standout Rich Baader, '83, both former Big Ten Medal of Honor winners, each spoke about the impact that being a Fighting Illini student-athlete had on their careers.

The Scholar-Athlete Banquet is an annual event that recognizes graduating student-athletes and others that have excelled both athletically and academically. Below is a complete list of the evening's award winners and finalists.

Fighting Illini Newcomer of the Year
(Best athlete performing in his/her first year of competition at Illinois)
Female Finalists
Freshman Allison Buckley (Schaumburg, Ill.), Gymnastics *** WINNER ***
Freshman Laura DeBruler (Downers Grove, Ill.), Volleyball
Sophomore Aja Evans (Chicago, Ill.), Track & Field
Redshirt Freshman Leigh Finnegan (Wilmington, Del.), Tennis
Freshman Danielle Kot (Brookfield, Wis.), Soccer
Freshman Danelle Woods (Ottawa, Ontario), Cross Country
Freshman Danielle Zymkowitz (West Hills, Calif.), Softball

Male Finalists Freshman Arrelious Benn (Washington, D.C.), Football *** WINNER ***
Freshman Scott Langley (Manchester, Mo.), Golf
Freshman Demetri McCamey (Bellwood, Ill.), Basketball
Freshman Daniel Ribeiro (Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.), Gymnastics
Freshman Paul Ruggeri (Manlius, N.Y.), Gymnastics

Fighting Illini Spirit Award
(Athletes who exemplify the spirit, courage, effort and dedication of the Fighting Illini)
Female Finalists
Junior Brooke Buzard (Glenview, Ill.), Softball
Senior Stephanie Chelleen (Des Moines, Iowa), Basketball
Sophomore Ashley Edinger (Michigan City, Ind.), Volleyball
Sophomore Megan Fudge (Kaarst, Germany), Tennis
Senior Kristin Kallergis (Lake Forest, Ill.), Golf
Senior Shannon McDonnell (Orland Park, Ill.), Soccer *** WINNER ***

Male Finalists
Senior Jon Drollinger (Hoopeston, Ill.), Gymnastics
Senior Gabe Flores (Madera, Calif.), Wrestling
Senior Ruben Gonzales (Terre Haute, Ind.), Tennis
Senior Ryan Hastings (Mattoon, Ill.), Baseball
Senior Trent Hoerr (Morton, Ill.), Cross Country and Track & Field
Senior J Leman (Champaign, Ill.), Football *** WINNER ***
Senior Brian Randle (East Peoria, Ill.), Basketball

Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year Finalists
(Awarded to the female and male student-athletes who have distinguished themselves in athletic achievement.)
***The Dike Eddleman Award winners will be determined following completion of the spring seasons.***
Female Finalists
Sophomore Angela Bizzarri (Mason, Ohio), Cross Country and Track & Field
Junior Julie Crall (Cincinnati, Ohio), Gymnastics
Senior Ella Masar (Urbana, Ill.), Soccer
Senior Angelena Mexicano (San Jose, Calif.), Softball
Senior Seul Ki Park (Northbrook, Ill.), Golf
Sophomore Jenna Smith (Bloomington, Minn.), Basketball

Male Finalists
Senior Wes Haagensen (Belleville, Ill.), Gymnastics
Senior Trent Hoerr (Morton, Ill.), Cross Country
Junior Kyle Hudson (Mattoon, Ill.), Baseball
Senior J Leman (Champaign, Ill.), Football
Junior Gakologelwang Masheto (Muan, Botswana) Track & Field
Junior Michael Poeta (Highwood, Ill.), Wrestling
Senior Ryan Rowe (Moline, Ill.), Tennis

Fighting Illini Outstanding Team GPA Awards
(Highest cumulative grade point average for a team)
Women's Swimming & Diving - 3.36 Cumulative GPA, Coach Sue Novitsky
Men's Cross Country - 3.17 Cumulative GPA, Coach Wendel McRaven

Outstanding Scholar-Athlete Award Winners
(Male and Female letterwinners with the highest grade-point average in each class of school.)
Sophomore Stephanie Baliga (Rockford, Ill.) Cross Country and Track & Field, 4.0 GPA - economics
Sophomore Jon Asamoah (Park Forest, Ill.) Football, 3.76 GPA - general curriculum in College of LAS
Junior Lori Bjork (Johnston, Iowa) Basketball, 3.93 GPA - political science
Junior Larry Blatt (Orland Park, Ill.) Golf, 3.80 GPA - finance
Senior Momei Qu (Portland, Ore.) Tennis, 3.91 GPA - finance and computer engineering
Senior Ruben Gonzales (Terre Haute, Ind.) Tennis, 3.81 GPA - Recreation, Sport and Tourism