ONE LAST ROAR: Norman County West fans pack stands for school’s final home game

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Posted: Friday, March 2, 2018 6:00 am

HALSTAD, Minn. – Packed shoulder to shoulder in a sea of blue, Norman County West fans lined the stands of Ruth Steen Gymnasium Saturday to cheer on the Panthers boys basketball team against the Rothsay Tigers.

Saturday’s matchup marked the only home contest remaining at Cactus Court this season for head coach Ron Ohren and his players. It also served as the final home game ever for the Panthers and their fans.

After 36 years as Norman County West, the Minnesota district plans to close its high school in Halstad this spring, allowing students in grades 6-12 to attend neighboring schools starting this fall.

Decked out in Panther T-shirts and varsity letterman’s jackets dating back more than 30 years, alumni lined the gym here to swap stories and relive memories from their school days – and to say goodbye.

“It’s a bittersweet day,” said Beth Christianson-Melby, 47, of Hillsboro, a 1989 Norman County West grad. “It’s fun to see all the alumni and the people I’ve known for so long, but it’s sad to think about the school closing and the gym going dark.”

Saturday’s Panthers game against the Tigers had its share of tears but also produced a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

A black Panther mascot and two T-Rex-costume-wearing students led fans through half-time drills on the court while Norman County West’s pep band and freshman drummer Daniel Jossund rocked the gym prior to tip-off.

Brock Carlson, 43, of Halstad, showed up for Saturday afternoon’s game in his 25-year-old Panthers letterman’s jacket.

The jacket still fit – sort of. “It’s a little snug,” he said, laughing.

Carlson graduated with a class of 32 in 1993. He said it was disappointing that his alma mater was shutting its doors forever.

“It’s kind of tough and a little sad. It’s too bad that the school had to close,” he said.

The best part about growing up a Panther was the sense of community the school created, Carlson said.

“It was the teachers and the community and the coaches,” Carlson said. “Everybody cared about everyone else.”

Brian Schlapkohl, 44, of Hendrum donned his 1992 letterman’s jacket Saturday along with his basketball warm-ups from his playing days for the Panthers.

“I found it in my dresser. It’s amazing what you can find when you haven’t used your dresser drawer for years,” he said.

Schlapkohl said he looked forward to visiting with friends and classmates from his youth, but he echoed Carlson’s sentiments about the pending high school closure.

“It’s too bad they couldn’t make it work, but with the cutbacks and the declining enrollment, it’s unfortunate,” he said.

Tony Guttormson, another alumnus, traded in his Burros blue in favor of a Panther blue hoodie Saturday.

The 31-year-old head coach of the Hillsboro-Central Valley girls basketball team graduated from Norman County West in 2005 and spent nine years as an assistant for the Panthers boys and girls basketball teams.

Led by then-head coach Mike Anderson, a Hillsboro-area farmer, Guttormson and the Panthers won a conference title Guttormson’s senior year after losing out to nearby Waubun a year earlier.

“We had a lot of successful basketball teams and I had a lot of great memories in this gym,” Guttormson said. “The coaches and teachers here obviously had a big impact on my life since I went into coaching and teaching myself.”

A majority of students in grades 6-12 from Norman County West will head east to Ada-Borup in the fall.

But Guttormson said he expects a number of transfers may head west across the Red River and into Hillsboro’s classrooms.

Will they get any preferential treatment from the former Panther?

“Obviously,” Guttormson said with a chuckle. “I had a lot of great experiences and formed friendships and relationships with the teachers here. It’s sad that it’s ending but it’s cool to see all the support come out here today.”

Christianson-Melby was a student at Norman County West during its sports glory days in the 1980s.

The Panthers boys basketball team made an appearance at the state tournament in 1986 and won state a year later.

On the football field, the Panthers captured Minnesota’s 9-man title in 1984 and took second in 1983 and 1985.

Christianson-Melby remembers walking into the Metrodome in Minneapolis as part of Norman County West’s pep band to play for those games.

“Our pep band always rocked,” she said. “We went everywhere to support the teams.”

Christianson-Melby was active in band and choir as well as volleyball, basketball and track in high school.

“That’s something you couldn’t do at a big school and definitely one of the benefits of going to a small school like Norman County West,” she said.

Josh and Melissa Beach also came to Saturday’s game decked out in Panthers gear.

A former Burro who transferred to Norman County West as a senior, Josh wore a Panthers football T-shirt, a 2001 graduation key necklace and his senior high school ring.

“This has been in my nightstand drawer since high school,” he said, pointing at the ring. “I’ve moved three or four times and it’s come with me every time.”

Josh went to day care in Halstad and later played traveling basketball with friends from the town of 600 in western Norman County.

He had no trouble fitting in as a Panther when he transferred his senior year.

“I had a lot of fun and I still have lifelong friends from here,” he said. “It’s sad that the school is closing, but it is what it is.”

The Panthers lost in their final game in front of their hometown fans, but Ohren told his players not to hang their heads after the loss.

The team battled back from an 11-point deficit with 17 minutes left in the second half and had a chance to win the game on a last-second 3-point attempt before losing 62-60.

After the final horn, Ohren spoke quietly to his players at midcourt before motioning to the crowd to join them for one final cheer.

“I told the guys that I loved them,” said Ohren, his voice cracking. “These guys worked their butts off all year.

“We weren’t even supposed to have a team this year and they fought and clawed and made their community proud. It’s been a fun season.”

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