The Ojibwe community surrounding Bemidji has made what's become a perennial trek to the Twin Cities for the boys' state basketball tournament.
This year, the Cass Lake-Bena Panthers make their first appearance since 2010. One after another, cars in the caravan heading south bear stickers reading "For Worm" and "For 44." They commemorate a teammate who should be there but isn't.
Jeremy Jourdain, known to his friends as "Big Worm," went missing in Bemidji on Halloween night in 2016 at age 17. Local, tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies have partnered with the community in the search for Jeremy to no avail.
Nearly a year and a half after he vanished, his teammates honored his dream of playing in the tournament when they defeated Rushford-Peterson 63-61 in double overtime Thursday at Williams Arena. They lost Friday, 67-47 in the Class 1A semifinals to North Woods and will play for third place on Saturday against Mayer Lutheran.
Candlelight vigils, fundraising runs and a community basketball tournament have been held to keep Jeremy's memory alive, along with the state tournament trip.
"He was always caring about everyone else and making sure he put a smile on everyone's face," teammate Coltin Mitchell said.
At Cass Lake-Bena High School, on the edge of the Leech Lake Reservation 20 miles from Bemidji, more than 90 percent of students are American Indian. The school made four straight state tournament trips from 2007-2010 and return this year with just one loss in 30 games played.
Community members not only made the 200-mile drive to Minneapolis during the Panthers' run, but also traveled to see Red Lake (a fellow Ojibwe high school that competes in the same section) participate in the tournament the past four years.
"It's another reservation and another native team being successful," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's father, Jamie, helped organize the Minnesota Chiefs, the community's Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, which gives kids in the community the opportunity to travel the country and play basketball in the spring and summer.
Parents and community members became involved in the year-round development of a core group of players that now plays for Cass Lake-Bena.
Alex Tanner, Jeremy's aunt (whom he called Mom), drove the team bus to tournaments in Oklahoma, Florida, the Dakotas and Minnesota. She's remained involved with the team, earning the name "Mama Buckwheat."
"I always wanted these boys to succeed no matter what in whatever they do, and it fills me with pride knowing they're going to do the best they can," she said. "I'm grateful for the team for remembering Jeremy and keeping his name out there for people to realize he's still missing."
Tanner said her heart stops whenever there are initial reports of missing persons found. Just Thursday, two bodies were recovered by a search party near Lower Red Lake. She called investigators, only to learn that the discovery did not include Jeremy. The bodies were those of two fishermen who went missing last November, tribal police announced in a news release.
"It's heartbreaking we don't have closure," she said.
Even while traveling in the offseason, Jeremy always talked about making the state tournament and his desire to play college basketball, according to Coltin.
"Over the years talking with him, he knew what he wanted and had to get his grades up," Jamie Mitchell said of Jeremy's goal of earning a basketball scholarship. "Basketball needed him and he needed basketball."
After falling in the section semifinals to Red Lake a season ago, this year the team purchased new warmups with in Jeremy's number and nickname on the back in commemoration.
They also bring Jeremy's jersey to every game, and when they advanced to the state tournament brought it to midcourt and hoisted it in the air.
"They are more motivated. They're not only playing with [Jeremy's memory] in their head. They're putting it in their heart — that's their brother," Jamie Mitchell said.
Trevor Squire is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.