CHAMPAIGN — Taylor Edwards called it the "epitome of fulfilling a childhood dream."
Edwards, a 2015 Arcola graduate who played softball for four years and basketball for one, and Michael Paradise, a gymnast for four years, have been selected as this year's Illinois recipients of the Big Ten Conference 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.
This year marks the 106th anniversary of the Big Ten Medal of Honor.
"This experience at Illinois has been way more than I ever could have thought or imagined," Edwards said. "I do remember being a young girl and just dreaming of one day competing on a huge stage and just being at a place to inspire little girls. I feel like I am in a place to do that and it is really kind of cool to think back to the days that I was in that spot. The award really means a lot to me."
Edwards said when she found out she was the recipient, she looked back at past winners.
"One thing that came up was Nicole Evans speech (in 2017)," Edwards said. "I listened to it Thursday and she challenged the underclassmen that she had an opportunity to lead and be that next role model that stepped up for the freshman that came in and were struggling.
"I feel like I have just been well-equipped by the people that have gone before me to be able to stand in this place now and receive the medal of honor. "
Edwards, the daughter of Jeff and Lisa Edwards of Arcola, said she found out Monday.
"(Women's basketball) Coach (Nancy) Fahey called me and congratulated me on winning the spirit award," said Edwards. "We were just having a normal conversation and she said, 'You know the Big Ten Medal of Honor, right? And I said, 'Yes,' and she said, 'Uh huh.'
"I didn’t know exactly what she meant by that, but the wheels started turning and she goes, 'It is all yours.' I was pretty overcome with emotion. Just because it is a prestigious award and to have my name etched next to people that have won it in the past is just a significant honor and I am really proud to represent Illinois and hold that award."
Edwards is the sixth women's basketball player and third softball player to take home the Big Ten Medal of Honor. The most recent women's basketball honoree was Ashley Berggren in 1998, while softball had recent back-to-back recipients with Allie Bauch in 2016 and Nicole Evans in 2017.
"Edwards is, without question, one of the toughest players I have ever had the pleasure of coaching," said Illinois softball coach Tyra Perry. "She would go out of her way to help her teammates become the best version of themselves both on and off the field. She was respected by our coaching staff and her teammates alike because of her team-first mentality and her willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve success."
On the field, Edwards was a four-year pitcher for the Fighting Illini softball team before joining the basketball team as a walk-on during her fifth season at Illinois. Edwards helped softball to three NCAA Regional appearances in her four seasons, including a regional final appearance as a sophomore in 2017, and closed her softball career among the Illini all-time leaders in earned run average (3.41, ranking seventh), victories (37, seventh), pitching starts (61, seventh) and most appearances (101, sixth). On the basketball court, Edwards played in six games this past season, making an immediate impact as a leader for the Illini squad.
"Taylor came into a team that needed a strong voice, and her natural leadership and determination were contagious," said Fahey. "Beyond the confines of a basketball court, Taylor sees the big picture of what the spirit of a Fighting Illini is, giving back and paying it forward. She became the face of our program in our community. I truly believe we will continue to see Edwards impact our Fighting Illini family for many years to come."
Edwards is a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection (2017-20), two-time Easton NFCA All-America Scholar-Athlete (2018-19), two-time Big Ten Distinguished Scholar (2018-19), two-time Fighting Illini Spirit Award winner (2018 & '20), Chi-Alpha-Sigma member (2018-20) and won the 2018 Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award. She has been involved in more than 25 community/charity events as well as being on the SAAC Executive Board, serving as a Big Ten Autonomy rep and being active in FCA.
Edwards earned a bachelor's degree in recreation, sport and tourism in August 2019 and is on track earn a Master's degree in the same field in August 2020.
Paradise, a Bartlett graduate, is a three-time All-American and will go down as one of the top pommel horse performers in the history of Illinois gymnastics. He helped the team win the 2018 Big Ten Championship and the team was in the mix for another title in 2020 before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was a 2020 team captain, is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree and Big Ten Distinguished Scholar.
Paradise will earn a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering this spring with a 3.8 grade-point-average. He also is extremely active in the community and as a youth coach, working with Special Olympics, Elite Stars special needs team, as a peer mentor, and more.
The Big Ten Medal of Honor recipients are usually recognized at the annual Oskee Awards student-athlete awards celebration in late April. However due to the COVID-19 pandemic that ended the 2019-20 athletic seasons early, this year's ceremony was canceled.
PHOTOS: Arcola's Taylor Edwards
Taylor Edwards Mug
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Arcola girls' returning letter winners
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Contact Mike Monahan at (217)-238-6854. Follow him on Twitter: @monahanmikejgtc
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