Norman County West To Officially Dedicate ‘Cactus’ Court’ Tonight Before Game

Norman County West High School in Minnesota will officially dedicate its gymnasium tonight, Dec. 14, to longtime former coach Cactus Warner, who died in February at age 72 from injuries suffered in a car crash.

The school dedicated the court last year shortly after Warner’s death, but was never able to properly unveil a sign or hold ceremony because of the coach’s unexpected death.

“We did give the family a plaque last February during the 30-year reunion that Cactus was supposed to be part of before his car accident,” said NCW boys basketball coach Ron Ohren.  “The court naming was kept as a surprise and was going to be presented to Cactus during the reunion weekend.”

Warner was traveling to Halstad from his home in Riverton, Wyo., for a basketball reunion to honor the state tournament basketball teams he coached in 1986, 1987 and 1997 and the 30th anniversary of the 1987 NCW state title. He failed to yield at the intersection of Cass County Road 26 and Highway 38, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, and a pickup struck Warner’s car on the driver’s side. Warner suffered severe injuries from which he did not recover. The crash occurred Feb. 19 and Warner died Feb. 27.

NCW will unveil a sign saying “Cactus’ Court” tonight before the 7:30 start of its varsity game against Mahnomen/Waubun.

“Cactus was a great Coach who not only taught you how to play basketball the right way but taught you how to win with class and lose with class,” Ohren said. “He had an impact on hundreds, if not thousands, of people along the way.”

we will be officially dedicating the NCW gym to Cactus Warner tonight before the start of our varsity game vs Mah/Waub.  We will be unveiling the Cactus Court sign tonight.  We did give the family a plaque last feb during the 30 year reunion that Cactus was supposed to be part of before his car accident.  The court naming was kept as a surprise and was going to be presented to Cactus during the reunion weekend.  Cactus coached Halstad for 2 years before becoming head coach when Hendrum Perley and Halstad joined in 1983.  He coached until 1989 and then again from 1995-1997.  Overall record of 208-70 with a state appearance in 1997, a state consolation championship in 1986 and a state championship in 1987.  Also a captain and all conference player for Moorhead State University.  Cactus was a great Coach who not only taught you how to play basketball the right way but taught you how to win with class and lose with class.  He had an impact on hundreds if not thousands of people along the way. Thanks Coach from all of us.

Here’s a column I wrote shortly after Warner’s car crash. It ran in The Forum on Feb. 22:

McFeely: Legendary coach needs all of his competitiveness after car crash

FARGO—Erwin Warner possesses one of the great nicknames in Minnesota high school sports history. He was known as Cactus when he coached the Norman County West boys basketball teams to three state tournament appearances, one of which included the school’s only state title in the sport. That came in 1987.

The nickname was given by a clever close family member who made note of Erwin’s personality, which could be described as prickly. Unable to use a shortened version of that word as a publicly acceptable moniker, Cactus was seen as a suitable option.

“Cactus is one of those guys who, if he fell in love with a game, would go all-out with everything he had to be good it and to win every time,” said his nephew, Jeremy Melting. “Playing board games with him sucks, because he takes that tenacity into everything he does. You’re having a good time until he turns it on.”

It led to great success on the basketball court for Warner, a Halstad, Minn., native who was an all-conference player for Moorhead State in the mid-1960s. It also led to success for basketball teams he coached.

Warner led the Terry Terriers to three Montana small-school state tournaments in the 1960s and ’70s. He also coached his hometown co-op of Halstad, Hendrum and Perley—Norman County West—to state tourneys in 1986, ’87 and ’97 in two stints at the school. All told, he coached NCW from 1980-89 and 1995-97, compiling a 208-70 record.

He quit coaching for good after the 1997 season to concentrate on farming, which he did across the Red River near Hillsboro, N.D. He later retired altogether and moved to Riverton, Wyo. It’s been awhile since Cactus has been in the news locally. But he’s still a legend around Halstad.

“He’s a sharp cat,” said Norman County West’s current coach, Ron Ohren. “And just that name. Cactus. If he was named Bill Olson or something, it probably wouldn’t have been so memorable. But everybody remembers somebody named Cactus.”

Warner was traveling to Halstad from Wyoming last weekend for a reunion of his three state tournaments, including a 30th anniversary celebration of the ’87 title team, when he failed to yield at the intersection of Cass County Road 26 and Highway 38 near Page, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol. A pickup struck Warner’s car on the driver’s side.

Warner was taken by air ambulance to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo with serious injuries. He is in stable condition, Melting said.

The injuries aren’t good, particularly for a 72-year-old. Warner suffered a ruptured bladder, broken pelvis, multiple broken ribs, broken sternum and a broken vertebra, according to his nephew.

 “They are very painful injuries, as you can imagine,” Melting said. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery.”

Warner’s wife, three children and grandchildren all live in Wyoming and Nevada and are traveling to Fargo on short notice. Some of Warner’s former players have set up a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $5,000 to help the family defray some of the immediate travel and medical costs. The page is titled “Helping Cactus’ Family.” It had raised $1,725 as of late Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 21.

“I’ve had many great coaches throughout my life, but he was hands down the greatest motivator, leader, life mentor and teacher of the game that I ever had,” said Scott Hemberger, who played for Warner from 1995-97 and now lives Corpus Christi, Texas. “Words can’t even describe.”

Melting played for his uncle for three seasons during Norman County West’s glory run in the 1980s. The Panthers finished fifth in the state tournament in ’86, won the title in ’87 and lost in the region championship to Crookston in ’88. This was back in the two-class days of Minnesota high school basketball. Even competing at the smaller Class A level, Norman County West was tiny with about 90 students.

“For as competitive as he was, I remember he was always calm in the huddles,” Melting said. “We were doing a lot of firsts during that time—first time playing for a district title, first time playing for a region title and so on. But he was always in control. He always felt that if you still had a rook and two pawns, you could still win. His sense of calm and control never wavered.”

There is another nugget about Warner: He became a successful sugar beet farmer, from scratch. A Forum story from 1993 recounted how he returned to Halstad from Montana to manage a grocery store his sister and brother-in-law owned before they were killed in a car crash. Warner also worked at the American Crystal Sugar plant in Hillsboro, where he met a retiring farmer willing to sell the equipment needed to raise beets. Warner started farming in the Red River Valley in 1980—without inheriting any land. He raised beets, wheat and barley on 1,100 acres.

He was also on the American Crystal board of directors from 1981-93, serving as chairman of the board in 1993.

Clearly, there are benefits to being ultra-competitive and having a prickly nature.

Those traits led to Cactus’ nickname and he’s going to need them now during what is sure to be a long and difficult recovery from his car crash.

He quit coaching in 1997 to focus on farming. Current NCW basketball coach Ron Ohren played for Warner in 1983 and 1984 and later coached against him when he coached for Waubun.