Although he wasn’t officially an Aggie yet, the rise of the coronavirus last March inflicted a very similar pain on Rollie Worster.
The day after Sam Merrill and his teammates had their hearts broken by the announcement that the 2020 NCAA Tournament would be canceled, Worster scored 21 points to lead the Missoula Hellgate Knights to a 48-34 win over Billings West in the semifinals of Montana’s Class AA state tournament.
But the Knights’ celebration over returning to the title game for a second straight season was extremely short-lived.
“At halftime it had been announced that the championship game was going to be canceled, regardless of who won,” said Worster, a freshman point guard on this year’s Utah State team. “But we were in the locker room, so we didn’t know that. So, we came out and finished the game and were super excited.”
Hellgate was still on the court rejoicing when the P.A. announcer at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse abruptly cut the celebration short by sharing the news that there would be no championship game the following day, and that Hellgate would be regarded as co-state champions with Billings Skyview.
A video posted on Twitter by Tony Wylie of MontanaSports.com shows the very moment that Worster realized his high school career was suddenly over. After initially trying to dismiss the difficult news with a wave of his hand, the star guard could only bend over at the waist and stare at the floor while trying to absorb the devastation that, despite a perfect 23-0 record, he and the Knights would be denied an opportunity to win a state championship on the court.
“We figured at some point something was going to happen because we were like the last game being played in the entire country,” Worster said. “It was something that was happening to everyone else, so it almost like a ticking time bomb for us.”
Having Hellgate and Skyview share the state title didn’t particularly satisfy anyone, especially Worster, who was “looking for redemption” after the Knights had lost to Bozeman in the 2019 championship game on a wild, last second play in overtime,
And not only had Worster been dreaming of avenging that heartbreaking loss, but he was also hoping to secure some bragging rights in his own home. Rollie’s older sister, Shannon, had won a Montana state title as a freshman guard at Missoula Sentinel.
“She throws that in my face a little bit, for sure,” Worster said.
And while it would seem that Rollie could surely trump Shannon if he and the Aggies (20-8) are able to beat Texas Tech (17-10) on Friday afternoon in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, Rollie isn’t even certain that an upset in the Big Dance would be enough. It turns out that in addition to a state title, Shannon has a national championship to her name.
As a sophomore, Shannon was an integral part of the Montana Western women’s basketball team that brought an NAIA Division I title back to Dillon, Montana, in 2019.
“It’s going to be hard to overcome that,” Worster admitted. “I don’t think she’ll ever let me get past her.”
Needless to say, when Worster declares that he comes from a “basketball family,” there’s more than enough evidence to support that.
In addition to he and Shannon, his other sister, Sami was also a highly accomplished high school player, while his uncle, Randy Worster, was a standout player at Weber State from 1982-85 and was named a member of the Wildcats’ 50th anniversary team in 2013. Worster’s father, Scott, also played one year at Weber State after graduating from Ben Lomond High School in Ogden.
- Utah State freshman guard Rollie Worster drives against Wyoming’s defense during the Aggies’ win over the Cowboys on March 4, 2021. Jeff Hunter
- Utah State freshman guard Rollie Worster looks to pass during USU’s 90-64 win over the College of Idaho on Dec. 8, 2020, at the Spectrum in Logan. Jeff Hunter
- Utah State’s Rollie Worster shoots a free throw during the Aggies’ 72-59 victory over Wyoming on March 4, 2021, at the Spectrum in Logan. Jeff Hunter
- Aggie guard Rollie Worster brings the ball up the court during Utah State’s 72-59 win over Wyoming on March 4, 2021, at the Spectrum in Logan. Jeff Hunter
“Whenever he comes down for games, (Scott) always drives around and goes back to look at Logan High, where he played,” Worster says of his father. “He says it always brings back memories that he had forgotten about.”
Of course, Utah State basketball and the state of Montana have a longstanding connection due to the outstanding career of Wayne Estes. A native of Anaconda, Estes was recruited to USU by Ladell Andersen, and ended up as the Aggies’ all-time leading scorer before he was electrocuted after stopping to look at a car accident in Logan on the night of Feb. 8, 1965.
Regarded by most as Utah State’s greatest player, Estes’ legend lives on 56 years later in both Cache Valley and the Treasure State. The facility which now houses the offices of the USU men’s basketball coaching staff is known as the Wayne Estes Center, and includes a number of items and displays memorializing the Aggies great who likely would have been one of the first half-dozen players taken in the 1965 NBA draft had he not died so young.
“I knew about Wayne Estes before I came here, for sure,” said Worster, while referencing the annual Wayne Estes Memorial Tournament played each spring in Anaconda. “I didn’t know about all the stuff that happened and how he passed away, but I knew who he was and how good of a player he was.”
While it would seem all but impossible for anyone to reach the legendary status accorded Estes, Worster is certainly off to a great start as another treasured son of the Treasure State and has the added benefit of being able to play as a freshman, an option unavailable to Estes in the ’60s.
A starter for USU’s first 22 games, Worster was suddenly sidelined in early February by what USU head coach Craig Smith would only refer to as a “lower leg injury.” There was some concern among Aggies fans that their freshman sensation — who had nearly put up a triple-double against UNLV just a game before his injury — wouldn’t be able to return this year. His absence was certainly felt during the Aggies’ key two-game series at Boise State, as the Broncos became the only team to sweep Utah State this season.
So, when Worster was reintroduced to game action midway through USU’s home game against Nevada on Feb. 28, Aggie fans — albeit it only 1,600 strong due to COVID-19 restrictions — greeted Worster with a very appreciative ovation at the Spectrum.
“It sucked having to watch from the sideline, knowing that I was capable of contributing but just couldn’t do it physically,” Worster said. “That was not fun at all.
“... So, to get an ovation like that coming back was super cool. It means a lot to have fans and a community that support us like that. Even with 1,500-1,600 people it’s amazing how loud it was for home games.”
While he had his minutes limited early on after returning to the lineup, Worster has averaged 32 minutes over the last five games. “I’m healed up, ready to go and everything feels good,” he said.
Worster’s presence was certainly felt last week during USU’s game against UNLV in the first round of the Mountain West tournament when he abused the Rebels, once again, for 14 points, eight assists and six rebounds.
“You forget, Rollie’s a good player,” Smith noted with a little chuckle while talking about Worster’s play since coming back from his injury. “That guy is going to have a great career. He’s just a winner, and he’s tough.”
“And since the time he missed, I’ve noticed some changes in him,” Smith added. “He’s always been super positive, but I think when you have an opportunity to sit there and you can’t play you find a way to see other things in a different light. And since that point, he’s really used his voice a lot more in a greater fashion, in terms of communicating on the floor and also in terms of some leadership.
“We need that, so that’s been exciting to see.”
Worster is certainly a perfect fit for Smith’s style of play. A standout football player at Hellgate, where he starred playing quarterback, safety and linebacker, the 6-foot-3 guard plays hard-nosed, all-out basketball and is certainly comfortable with physical contact. In fact, Worster also received offers to play football for his hometown Montana Grizzlies, as well as the Montana State Bobcats. But he insisted he wanted to play basketball and committed to play his preferred sport for Montana before his sophomore year. However, due to what Worster refers to as “complications and disagreements” involving the Griz, he was suddenly available again the summer before his senior season.
Utah State assistant coach Eric Peterson jumped at the opportunity and went after Worster hard in the summer of 2019, and a recruiting trip to Logan all but secured his commitment to the Aggies.
“Coach Smith and his staff made me feel like they really wanted me, and told me they thought I was a player that could really help them in the future,” Worster said. “And everyone on the team got along and made it feel like a family, that was one of the biggest things. And then, obviously, how good of a team they were and the success they had on the court.”
Of course, coming out of the class of 2020, Worster had some curveballs thrown at him last spring. In addition to the unsatisfying co-state championship — “That’s what they say; back home we don’t really count it” — there was the end of in-person learning due to the pandemic. Thrust into online learning in March, he said he never returned to his high school. While Hellgate held a limited graduation ceremony in May, Worster didn’t attend, saying it “wouldn’t be enjoyable because it just wasn’t the same experience.”
By early June, Worster had relocated to Cache Valley, where he discovered only one new teammate (center Neemias Queta, who never went home to Portugal during the pandemic) was in Cache Valley, while USU’s training facilities were closed and he had to endure a two-week quarantine upon arrival.
“It was a lot of DoorDash and getting used to living on my own,” he said of his first few weeks in Logan.
Later in June, Worster’s new roommates/teammates arrived in Marco Anthony and Alphonso Anderson, and soon his Aggies career was off and running. And with the departure of Merrill, Abel Porter and Diogo Brito from last year’s starting backcourt, he recognized he had an opportunity to jump right into USU’s starting lineup this season and ended up doing just that.
“I think I expected it,” Worster said about working his way into a starting spot so quickly. “People who didn’t know me or hadn’t watched me play a lot might have been surprised. But for me, I expected it. I had confidence in myself that I would be able to contribute a lot to this team.”
Now 20 years old with a full beard, Worster certainly doesn’t look or play like a typical freshman, and that is clearly something the Aggies desperately needed. Certainly no one was going to replace Merrill, who was picked in the second round of the 2020 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, but thanks to Anthony’s versatility and Brock Miller’s improved 3-point shooting on the perimeter, the Aggies managed to win 20 games for the third straight year, despite playing a truncated schedule. Freshman guard Steven Ashworth has also played well at point guard coming off the bench, giving Smith the opportunity to play Worster at both the point and shooting guard.
“Rollie’s dependable, and he only cares about winning,” Smith said of Worster, who is averaging 9.2 points per game while shooting 41% from the field and leading the Aggies with 91 assists. “He has a moxie and a swagger to him; not in a cocky way, just very poised and under control.
“... He has such a great way about him and the way he goes about his business. And he’s just in the gym all the time. Have to tell him to take a day off sometimes, and he just looks at me kind of cross-eyed like, What are you talking about?”
Worster likely gets his work ethic from his grandfather, the man he was named after, leaving his full name as Herman Rolland Worster II. But Worster says he’s always been known as Rollie — just like his grandpa — and the only time he’s been called Herman was when new substitute teachers would call roll.
And while at school during March Madness, Worster admits that he and his friends would often try and sneak onto a computer to watch NCAA Tournament games. Come Friday, you can bet the same thing will be happening up in Big Sky country.
And you can also bet that at some point during the game, CBS’s announcers will mention that Worster was also recruited as a football player and, legend has it, can throw a football 70 yards in the air.
While Worster confirms that that little tidbit is true, he also noted, “I definitely want to be known just as a basketball player now because that’s what I love doing, and that’s what I’m playing here at Utah State.”