BOZEMAN — As the Hardin Bulldogs boys basketball team ran around the court in joy after winning the State A title over Billings Central on Saturday, their head coach, Andrew Round Face, couldn’t help but think about when he’d seen this before.
Fifteen years ago, Round Face himself was a player, a 5-foot-3 sophomore who played mostly junior varsity for Anadarko High School in Oklahoma. He remembers playing "a minute or two" as his Warriors became the 4A champs after a 74-67 win over Piedmont High School.
The players stormed the court to hug the starters in a scene nearly as chaotic as Hardin's. But that was the only celebrating Round Face got to experience.
Two days later, his family was in a car heading west to Arizona, where his mother, Sharlene, was to start a new job.
“I was so angry and mad because, to me, that was my biggest accomplishment in life so far," said Round Face, who was born in Crow Agency but moved to Anadarko with his family when he was 3. "I wanted to celebrate state, celebrate with my friends, my teammates and coach. I kind of felt like I was robbed. You work so hard for something, and then life came, and my mom had to make the best choice for our family, but I felt like I was robbed out of it and I couldn’t do anything about it. I just had to suck it up and move to Phoenix.
“You go from being on top of the world to sitting in the backseat of a car looking out the window driving down the highway heading to Arizona.”
Round Face said he despised the idea of leaving Oklahoma for a state where he didn’t know anyone.
And as it turned out, he would only live in Arizona for two weeks.
Still angry about having to move, certain he wouldn't get to play much for a bigger school with better athletes, and overwhelmed by the scale of everything, Round Face decided he wanted to return to Montana to live with his father, Howard, who had recently split with Sharlene.
“So I kept calling my dad and he didn’t have the money to do it and finally my mom said, ‘If you want to go that bad, I’ll put you on a bus,’” Round Face recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ My little brother Calvin (an eighth-grader) wanted to go with me, and I was fine going by myself but I was scared to take my little brother with me because I was really over-protective of him.
“I can’t even remember the name of the school (in Phoenix). I just know they were Trojans.”
Sharlene bought the boys new shoes and bus tickets, then dropped them off at the station in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The journey was far from smooth. They sat back by the bathroom in the bus, which Round Face said, “wasn’t the greatest smelling place but I felt safe back there. I could see everybody and I didn’t want anybody behind us. As a kid you have all of these crazy scenarios going on in your head of bad things that could happen.”
At the station in Denver, the driver tried to wake an older woman toward the front of the bus. It wasn't until an ambulance arrived a few minutes later and the bus was emptied that they realized the woman was dead. The brothers sat in a nearby pizza shop for about four hours, waiting to switch buses.
“That was the longest ride of my life,” Round Face said.
Once the new bus hit Wyoming, Round Face began to perk up. He recognized the land and knew they were close to what would become home for him again.
Round Face started school in Pryor, returned to Oklahoma briefly after his mother returned to Anadarko, then came back to Montana permanently.
“I think I grew up a little bit in between that time,” Round Face said. “I really fell in love with Montana being able to hunt and fish and all the openness and being by the mountains and stuff like that.”
Round Face graduated from Plenty Coups High School and played basketball there for two years. But he never got to experience a state title again as a player.
As a senior, Plenty Coups lost to Geyser twice at state, in the opening round and third-place game, which was coached by Hardin’s current superintendent, Dennis Gerke.
But Round Face never forgot his experience at Anadarko and the lessons it provided.
The team’s coach, Doug Schumpert, demanded a lot from his players. Because of that, some kids quit, creating space for younger players to move up, including Round Face.
“There was a few games that he was so ticked off at our starting five that he made the bench play the whole game,” he remembers. “As a sophomore you get out there and you’re playing against seniors. He put a lot of trust in us and that really helped build my character and he was such a tough guy to play for. He was well-disciplined and so were we. It was a lot of fun but a lot of hard work as well.”
A self-declared shy guy, Round Face said the brief time on the court in a state championship game in front of a huge crowd were some of the most nerve-wracking moments of his life.
“It was an amazing feeling," he said. "We had the whole town supporting us. I remember showing up to the gym getting ready to leave to Oklahoma City to get to the state tournament and bringing all of my clothes and my pillow and my blankets and stuff. It was just unreal and then we start to leave and then there is people lined up along the road, cheering us on as we’re leaving town. It was just one of those feelings that I’ll never forget.”
The team took a photo, and though Round Face's name is on it his picture is not because of how quickly the family moved. Fifteen years later, in February, he visited Anadarko for the team’s 15th anniversary and was finally able to hold the trophy, celebrate with old teammates and catch up with Schumpert.
And now, a month later, Round Face is finally able to celebrate a state title in real time for Hardin.
“We haven’t had this much success in a long time and I was just so happy for them,” Round Face said. “You could just see it on their faces. I looked in their eyes and it was pure happiness that they probably haven’t had in a long time. For that night, nothing else mattered to them. They got to be kids again and feel the love from everybody. So that was the most amazing part for me.”
He added: “There’s a lot of similarities between the two teams. Things that we do here are things that I did when I grew up so they kind of go hand-in-hand.
"But this weekend has really pushed it over the top for me to be happy where I’m at and happy that things, at the time I didn’t think worked out, but actually did work out for the best."