MISSOULA — The moment flooded back to Rollie Worster earlier this week.
The Missoula Hellgate senior had a flashback to last year’s state title game. It’s the last-second loss to Bozeman. A gut-wrenching, heartbreaking defeat on a buzzer-beating layup in overtime.
The crushing agony still hangs with Worster. He’s blocked it out most of the season, but it comes back as he’s preparing for his final State AA tournament, starting Thursday in Bozeman.
Worster isn’t thinking about it while doing shooting drills or running sprints from one sideline to the other during practice. But the memories of the shot he couldn’t stomach to watch until a week after the game and the awful feelings associated with it, like coming out of the locker room to see the sadness on faces, seep through during the innocuous moments.
“Just driving to school or back home by myself, I definitely think about it with state approaching,” Worster said. “It doesn’t affect me. You obviously wish it didn’t happen, but you can’t control that anymore. Hopefully we can make some different memories this year.”
A state championship is the one thing that’s eluded Worster, a three-time all-state player and a one-time Montana Gatorade boys basketball player of the year. He owns one school record and is in the top three in two other categories. He’s even going to play basketball at Utah State in the Mountain West Conference, a rarity for a Montana athlete to go to that level of a Division I program.
Yet it’s that state title, the ultimate team award, that Worster so desires. It’s been his goal since before he got to high school. He wrote it down as one of the many things he wanted to achieve. He’s crossed off those things one by one.
Just not the state title.
With his uncommon drive, the title is once again in sight. From playing hoops on the driveway against older siblings who never let him get anything easy to working with trainers since he was a kid to putting up shots in empty gyms on off days while others were resting to even exceling on the football field, it’s all been with an eye on being the best at whatever he does.
“You can’t work as hard as he does and not be driven to achieve those types of things,” Hellgate coach Jeff Hays said.
Basketball is the unofficial Worster family sport.
Rollie’s uncle Randy Worster began his basketball career at Washington before transferring to Weber State, where he played for three years in the 1980s. His father Scott Worster also played briefly at Weber State. Both of his sisters played in high school and had the chance to continue at the NAIA in Montana, with one going on to play and the other passing up the opportunity.
It’s those very siblings who got Worster started in basketball. His father bought him an orange Nerf basketball and a mini-hoop that hangs onto the top of a door to shoot baskets, although Worster was too young to remember those times shooting hoops while still in a diaper.
“I’d rebound it for him and try to make sure he was getting some decent form,” Scott Worster said. “He also got that from his two older sisters, following them around. He always watched them and tried to emulate them.”
Rollie more so recalls those battles with sisters Sami, 23, and Shannon, 21. They’re four and two years older than him and never let anything come easy for him on the court.
They’d get into arguments while playing on their driveway, at Target Range or at the Peak. Rollie sometimes left to storm into the house and slam shut the door to his room.
“They were bigger than me and older, and they liked to pick on me a little bit and wouldn’t let me shoot on their basket sometimes,” Worster said. “Just little stuff like that. I think it kind of just drove me, though, to get better and helped me a lot being that we were really competitive with each other growing up.”
Worster would also attend his sisters’ basketball practices when he was around 5. He’d shoot on empty baskets or jump in on any drill he was allowed to do.
Worster came to the attention of former Hellgate coach Eric Hays, Jeff’s dad, when he was in first or second grade. His sisters came to Eric’s basketball camp at Hellgate, and Scott asked if there was room for Rollie because the single father couldn’t leave Rollie home alone.
“We snuck him in there and we’ve had him in camp every summer since,” Jeff Hays said. “We’ve known him for a long time. He’s always been that kid who’s super focused and driven, even at a young age.”
Worster believes it was around fifth or sixth grade that he finally beat his sisters in basketball. By seventh grade, he finally took down his father in a game of h-o-r-s-e.
The hours spent on the court and his own physical growth finally paid off. Soon he’d be accomplishing one of the goals he wrote down: start as a high school freshman.
“I think I just kind of naturally have the drive to excel,” Worster said. “But it also started with my sisters, playing against them. That was big time.”
Worster exceled as soon as he got to Hellgate, earning first-team all-state honors as a freshman.
He’d go on to earn two-more all-state awards and could make it a clean sweep later this month. He was also named the Gatorade Montana boys basketball player of the year after last season, a bittersweet individual award considering it was coupled with a loss in the state title game.
As he matured, Worster also moved up the all-time lists. He owns the school’s career record for points, is second in assists and third in rebounds. He’s also shown his propensity to steal the ball right out of another player’s hands and block shots.
“If you could build a player in those video games, he’s that guy,” Jeff Hays said. “He’s amazing. If he were 6-10 or something, that would be the only thing.”
“He’s got all five of those physical tools to be a ‘five-tool player,’ but he’s also got that mental makeup that he’s not going to give in, he’s not going to quit. He’s that fighter and competitor that pushes himself to be the best. But he does it in a way that he’s also the best teammate.”
Hays knew he had someone with great potential in Worster as a freshman. He didn’t know how high the ceiling was because he didn’t how tall Worster could end up growing.
Worster’s growth as a player came in part from how he transformed his body from a 6-foot, 160-pound freshman to a 6-3, 205-pound senior. He credits his physical growth in part to his trainer, Steve Pitts.
Worster was introduced to Pitts around age 5, once again tagging along with his sisters because his father didn’t want to leave him home alone. So, Worster would get up at 5 a.m. to run ladder and cone drills with the girls before later graduating to weightlifting.
“I’ve never seen a drive like his since my brother,” said Scott, who would regularly watch games with Rollie as they broke down film together and talked about how Rollie could improve his game. “I don’t know where he finds the energy. But that’s what makes him the player he is.”
Worster has been a headache for opposing high school coaches since he started at Hellgate. Sentinel coach Jay Jagelski said it’s all about trying to contain Worster because stopping him is next to impossible.
“I would say he is one of the most fundamental and smartest basketball players that’s come out of Montana,” Jagelski said. “He’s very fundamental, very smart. And he’s become very unselfish over the years. Those are very important qualities that are going to help him at the next level.”
Helena Capital coach Guy Almquist raved about Worster’s shooting ability.
“The thing that separates Rollie is he can get his shot at any time,” Almquist said. “You put two guys on him, and he’ll still find a way to get it to go in.”
For Hays, it’s Worster’s ability as a two-player that sets him apart.
“I feel like he’s the best offensive player in the state at almost any position,” Hays said. “He might even be the best defensive player at each of those positions, except for maybe at the center position where there’s some bigger guys that might bother him more. He’s just such an amazing two-way player. We haven’t seen that here at Hellgate and probably never will again.
College basketball wasn’t always the path Worster knew he was going to follow.
He grew up playing basketball, football and baseball, loving all of them. He decided around seventh grade that he had to drop baseball because it’d interfere with football and AAU basketball in the summer once he got to high school.
He didn’t know if he’d have a college opportunity in basketball or football as a freshman, but the basketball interest came quickly. The Montana Grizzlies offered him a full-ride scholarship prior to his sophomore season, and he accepted the offer.
Montana and Montana State both came along with football offers before Worster’s senior season. He decommitted from the Griz, weighed his options although he knew he wanted to stay with basketball and ended up signing with Utah State.
“I enjoy football a lot, but there’s something with basketball that just gets me,” Worster said. “Basketball you can play year-round, which you can’t do in football, especially in Montana. That might have had an effect on why I love basketball so much more and why I chose that route.
Hellgate football coach Mick Morris is adamant that Worster could play football in Division I. Worster was a two-way all-state player for the Knights, suiting up at quarterback and switching between linebacker and safety on defense.
The Knights didn’t have a varsity football team Worster’s freshman year, but he helped lead the charge in bringing back the program. They returned to the football field his sophomore year, ended a 57-game losing streak his junior season and won three games his senior year.
“I think he’s as important or more important than anyone, even the coaches, in bringing the program back,” said Morris, whose kids will be wearing Worster jerseys at the state tournament this week. “We certainly couldn’t have done the things we did without him. We had a lot of kids who were instrumental, and we couldn’t have done it without a lot of them, but he’s an incredibly special football player.”
That showed through not only on the field but in Worster leading guys in the weight room or in footwork drills or by throwing around the football when no coaches were around. It was the type of leadership that Morris knew he needed when he took over the program, accepting the job in part because he knew Worster would be going to Hellgate.
“Our football team being so young lacked knowing how to compete,” Morris said. “Rollie’s competitive in everything he does. Kids certainly fed off of him. He brought the fire and intensity, which is a requirement to have. It was pretty phenomenal.”
While football is over for Worster, he learned the valuable lessons of perseverance. He also benefited from on the field. The physicality he learned transferred over to banging bodies in the lane in basketball. The ability to cut on the football field helped him drive through defenders on the court.
What he’ll remember most is the wins and the time with friends, the latter a key reason why he stuck with football after already committing to college for basketball.
“I think everyone was just really proud of what we did,” Worster said. “We can look back and say we rebuilt the program and brought it back on its feet.”
Hitting the high note
Worster doesn’t prefer the spotlight, although he’s been in it most of his high school career.
He’d rather go about his business in quiet and not take too much credit, always ready to praise his teammates. He knows winning that state title can’t be accomplished on his own anyway.
“I know that’s what he wants,” Hays said. “That’s what motivates him and motivates all of us. He’s made me better as a coach. He holds me accountable. I don’t want to see that come up short for any of us.”
Worster constantly hears from his sister Shannon about how she won a state title at Sentinel her freshman year, not to mention a national title at Montana Western last season. So, he joked he needs to win one just to have something for family arguments.
But on a more serious note, winning a championship has been his stated goal since starting high school. Without one, his journey would be incomplete.
With that crown, it’d be the proper ending to a stellar career.
“To end of as high of a note like that, it would mean a ton,” Worster said. “And then last year with what happened and being so close and not achieving it, I think it drove everybody to work harder. I know it drove me to work harder. It would mean the world to finish out on top.”