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By JOHN C. COTEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000
HUDSON -- The package that Nicole Warder has been waiting for and working toward almost her whole life finally arrived in the mail Tuesday -- scholarship papers.
Today, Warder will sign them.
Having already verbally committed to attend Division II Rollins College in Orlando, the talented Hudson point guard will make things official today with her signature as the signing period begins.
"It's just awesome that a college is willing to pay your way so you can play something you love to do," Warder said.
Rollins plays in the Sunshine State Conference, which it has been the regular-season champion of the past two seasons. The Tars have also been to the NCAA Tournament four of the past five seasons and are currently ranked No. 11 in the Division II preseason poll.
Warder was also offered a scholarship by Florida Southern and also received attention from West Florida, Valdosta State and others.
But after her visit to Rollins, she was sold.
"It's an awesome school, and they have an awesome basketball team," Warder said.
Hudson coach Doreen Grote, who has been hyping Warder since she was a freshman, seemed genuinely pleased one of her favorite players was getting the opportunity to play at the next level.
"She deserves this," Grote said. "This is what she's worked for her whole life. She's worked so hard. I think if a lot of younger kids knew something like this could happen, they'd spend more time working on their game."
Grote said when she coached Warder's sister, Michelle, at Gulf in the mid-1980s, she remembers a 5-year-old Nicole "running up and down the court with the girls.
"She's a gym rat."
Warder is arguably Pasco County's most skilled girls basketball player and an All-Sunshine Athletic Conference pick her first three seasons. Florida girls basketball analyst Bob Corwin said she was one of the top seniors in the state this season.
He also said that Warder is one of those players who will excel more in college than in high school. He is supported by Warder's outstanding summers playing for an AAU team when surrounded by the state's best players, and Grote said she has heard the same thing.
"Those coaches told me she was playing at another level we don't know anything about here," Grote said.
At Hudson, Warder has had to overcome some bad luck as injuries to some of the team's best players have resulted in a host of special defenses being thrown at her to slow her down.
As a freshman, Warder had to shoulder the load when top scorer and rebounder (and current Lynn University star) Kerri Rulison tore her ACL before the season. Warder went on to average 12 points per game, including 18 points per game during the last month of play in helping the Cobras to the district semifinals.
The unselfish Warder also sank 27 three-pointers and handed out 79 assists to go along with 77 steals to earn All-North Suncoast first team honors. As a sophomore, Warder was probably the victim of unrealistic expectations, ones she failed to meet. But as a junior, she bounced back and had an outstanding year. Again, the team's leading scorer (Melissa Strawser) tore her ACL early and Warder picked up her level of play and averaged a career-best 18 points per game, including 31 in the district final as she led Hudson to the school's first regional playoff appearance in 11 years. Though she mans the point at Hudson, Warder said Rollins told her she will be a shooting guard in college to take advantage of her outside prowess. That switch should also play to Warder's other strengths.
"She is basically a good all-around player," Grote said. "She's not afraid to take it to the hoop, she has a very good outside shot and she has great court presence. She knows when someone is open even before they know they're open."