* Photo Showcase: Fred Ware Award winner Ethan Finlay
* * *
Ethan Finlay is blessed - and sometimes cursed - with that ultra-competitiveness that separates great athletes from the rest of the populace.
His Creighton soccer coaches sensed that in Finlay shortly after he showed up on campus four years ago. His family knew it long before then.
"It doesn't matter if I'm playing a board game with my older sister or my grandmother. I want to win," Finlay said. "I hate to admit it, but I've been caught cheating playing Scrabble with my grandmother, or trying to slip myself a little extra money in Monopoly."
While those are hardly capital offenses, they illustrate Finlay's unquenchable desire to win - a trait that helped mold him into one of the finest players in Creighton soccer history.
He ended his Creighton career last season as a consensus All-American and runner-up in voting for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer's Heisman. He adds another honor Sunday in being named the 32nd winner of The World-Herald's Fred Ware Award.
The Ware Award is given annually to the four-year college athlete in Nebraska who, in the judgment of the newspaper's editors, made the most significant achievement in sports while representing the best traditions of his or her institution. The late Fred Ware organized The World-Herald's sports department and served as sports editor from 1924 to 1942, and later was managing editor and a member of the newspaper's board of directors.
Finlay, now a member of Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew, started all 79 matches over the past four seasons at Creighton and became just the third player in school history to twice earn first-team All-America honors. He also was Creighton's first two-time Missouri Valley player of the year.
He finished his career with 43 goals, fifth in program history and seventh in the Valley. His 103 career points rank sixth in school history and 10th in conference history. Almost half (20) of his goals were game-winners, including the overtime tally against South Florida last December that carried Creighton to the College Cup for the first time in a decade.
"If you can find a striker that moves as much as Ethan does on the field and plays as hard as he did," Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich said, "you have a jewel."
Finlay's impact extends beyond soccer. He earned second-team Academic All-America honors in 2011, compiling a cumulative 3.41 grade-point average while majoring in finance. He also was a willing participant in the program's outreach activities, taking part in numerous charitable and educational experiences over the years.
"Ethan was a guy that always embraced his persona here at Creighton," Bluejays assistant coach Johnny Torres said. "He was one of the players that understood that being put on a pedestal as a Creighton athlete here in Omaha was not necessarily a privilege, but a responsibility.
"He made sure he gave back to the community, whether that was through volunteer work or as a mentor for the youth in the community."
Torres, a two-time national player of the year, is generally recognized as the finest player in Creighton history. And he was key in Finlay's development as an attacking player.
Torres' impact carried beyond the pitch.
"Johnny was my idol as a player, and I wanted to emulate him when I got here," Finlay said. "Being around him, I could see how much Johnny cared about the Omaha community and the impact he had.
"Johnny emphasized how important it was to give back, and the senior group that I was a part of it realized how important that was. If you can do something to make a kid that might be going through tough times smile or make an impact by being a part of a reading program, those are the kind of things that can make a difference."
Born in Minnesota, Finlay came to Creighton from the Milwaukee suburb of Marshfield, Wis. He was recruited heavily by Wisconsin, Marquette and Santa Clara, with Indiana and Ohio State jumping in late.
A visit to Omaha to meet with then-head coach Bob Warming settled the matter.
"I can still remember that we were two or three hours into the drive back home when I told my dad, 'I think Creighton is where my heart is,"' Finlay said. "I just felt it was the place where I could best develop as an individual."
Finlay, along with another recruit, Greg Jordan, graduated from high school a semester early to enter the program in January 2008. That allowed the pair to settle in athletically and academically.
It also gave coaches an early glimpse of Finlay's competitiveness. Torres recalled an incident when Finlay, who still should have been in high school, got into it with a senior teammate on the practice field.
"There's a pecking order on any team," Torres said. "Something went on that wasn't to Ethan's liking, and he actually confronted one of our older guys about it. At the time, it wasn't probably the smartest thing for Ethan to do because he had to deal with the repercussions from the other upperclassmen.
"But for the coaching staff to see that from a freshman, we enjoyed that and respected that. It showed the staff that Ethan had a quality about him that would allow him to become the leader he became."
Finlay earned freshman All-America honors in 2008, when he scored six goals and had 16 points, both second-best on a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Finlay led the Bluejays in scoring as a sophomore (eight goals, 19 points), but it proved to be a tumultuous season.
The Bluejays lost or tied more games than they won (nine to seven) and saw their string of 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances snapped. The next spring, Warming resigned to become the head coach at Penn State.
His replacement, Jamie Clark, led Creighton back to the tournament in 2010, with Finlay again leading the team with 15 goals and 34 points. Two months after the season, Clark left for Washington, leaving Finlay and the other veterans to adjust to their third coach in less than a year.
As he looks back on it, Finlay said, the experience helped prepare him for soccer after Creighton.
"I was exposed to three different types of coaches, three different styles and three different personalities," Finlay said. "That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I loved to sit and listen and learn from each of them.
"I would love to coach in the future, and I think going through three coaches in a two-year period helps me better understand what it takes to be successful at that level."
Bolowich, who won a national championship at North Carolina, inherited a veteran group at Creighton, but the coach said having a player of Finlay's caliber helped ease the transition.
"He was an exceptional athlete to have on the team, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him," Bolowich said. "I knew of Ethan when I came here, but the one thing I didn't know was how tough he would be. When you work with guys, you find out their limits. And when do they start cracking?"
"He had quite a high ceiling," Bolowich replied, chuckling. "He set a high standard."
Creighton enjoyed one of its finest seasons in 2011, compiling a 21-2-1 record and reaching the national semifinals. Finlay again was the scoring leader, notching 14 goals and 34 points to rank among the national leaders.
The dream season came to an end with a shootout loss to Charlotte in the national semifinals. The match, which officially goes into the record books as a 0-0 tie, provides Finlay with the marquee moment of his career.
"It was one of the saddest moments, but to be able to take the field with guys like Greg Jordan and Brian Holt and Andrew Duran and the rest of the seniors was really special," Finlay said. "I don't think many people believed we could do what we did, to vie for a national championship.
"I still believe that we were the best team, but it just wasn't our day. That's hard to take, but it's one of those things we have to live with."
After graduating in December, Finlay moved on to professional soccer. The Crew used the No. 10 pick in the MLS draft to select him, and he's played in 11 of the team's 16 games, with three starts. He did miss about three weeks of the season while recovering from a concussion.
Although he's excited about where his soccer career might be going, Finlay will never forget where it's been.
"My decision to come to Creighton was probably the most important one I've made in my life," he said. "It is where I transitioned from a boy into a man. It helped set me up for my career and educationally for the future.
"If I didn't go through the experiences I did at Creighton, I don't know if I'd be in the position I am today."
Contact the writer: