Inside, the cold December air quickly evaporates. The bleachers lining the walls of the small gymnasium are crammed with red, white, black and blue - a fusion of the home team's colors and visiting Bell City. A few empty seats remain on the stage behind one of the baskets.
It's a typical Friday night in the small Southeast Missouri town where basketball takes center stage twice a week. But there's more than basketball on everyone's mind.
Less than four months earlier, it was a gymnasium filled with tears as friends said goodbye to two teammates.
On Aug. 23, a tragic accident involving five Bernie students changed the town of 1,975 forever. Three survived with major injuries, but Darius Wooldridge and Shannon Tarkington didn't. Both died from injuries sustained in the one-vehicle wreck.
"It's been tough on the community, the kids. It's still affecting us," Bernie boys basketball coach Morris Karnes said. "As a coach you have kids come through all the time, but there are some you get close to. These kids were those type of kids."
The gymnasium is littered with tributes to Wooldridge and Tarkington. Their respective numbers, 53 and 33, appear everywhere: on the back of the players' warmups and shoes, on cheerleaders' turtlenecks and even stuck to the windows of vehicles. But one tribute stands out the most - Wooldridge's No. 53 jersey and Tarkington's No. 33 draped over two empty chairs at the front of the Bernie bench.
"We're trying to pay honor and tribute to them, so it's always right there. It's not far from your mind," Karnes said. "It's not something we're going to forget."
Shannon Tarkington and Darius Wooldridge loved to make people laugh, and they were good at it. One of Brandon Shipman's favorite memories is the time Wooldridge shaved his head bald and wore overalls on a trip to a beauty pageant to pick up girls. Tarkington once put Shipman's parked truck into reverse and let it roll toward a house to coax Shipman out of his locked car.
"They weren't just normal friends," junior Zach Dill said. "Most people have friends that they go to their house and sit around and talk, but this was a funny friendship. It was all the time making people laugh."
Wooldridge regularly volunteered to help at summer basketball camps or officiate elementary leagues. He was always around the basketball offices. Tarkington had just started his own lawn mowing and landscaping service.
The night after the accident, Karnes got a phone call from an area coach offering his condolences. He told Karnes about a 30-minute conversation he recently had with Dill and Wooldridge at the Malden Wal-Mart.
"How many kids from another team would I stop to and talk for 30 minutes? Not very many," Karnes said. "They were those type of kids."
Karnes remembers seeing Wooldridge as an eighth grader with unlimited potential. He was tall, athletic and had an amazing shooting touch. But knee injuries slowed Wooldridge's promising career. They began when he tore his ACL as a freshman.
He returned as a sophomore and scored double digits in two games before tearing the ACL in his other knee midway through his third game back. At the time of the accident, Wooldridge was recovering from major surgery on both knees. He made a promise to Karnes that he was going to play this season.
"He did things basketball wise that in 20 years of coaching I've never seen a kid do," Karnes said. "I saw him in fullcourt pick-up games dunk balls off missed shots as an eighth grader. I've never seen that. He had more potential probably than any kid I've ever had."
Tarkington played basketball at Bernie as a freshman but not as a sophomore. Karnes later heard that Tarkington was afraid he wouldn't make the varsity team with the rest of his friends and didn't want to be 'stuck' on the junior varsity team by himself.
Tarkington returned to open gym last summer and impressed the coaching staff. Both he and Wooldridge were projected starters.
But a seemingly ordinary night between friends in late August changed everything.
Like they were on most nights, Wooldridge, Tarkington, Dill, Shipman and Jeremy Eubank were together. They had just returned from a food run to Dexter in Wooldridge's Jeep Wrangler and were headed into Bernie to see who was cruising town.
Wooldridge was turned around, talking to his friends in the back seat as they approached an intersection. When they screamed for him to turn around, Wooldridge was just feet away from a stopped car. He veered to the right and struck a stop sign, then picked up speed as he swerved across the road and across a private drive before swerving back to the right, overturning and colliding with a small tree.
Wooldridge, Tarkington and Dill - none wearing their seat belts in the topless Jeep - were all ejected. There was no alcohol or drugs involved, just a peculiar accident that left many wondering what made the Jeep accelerate after making impact with the stop sign. That question still hasn't been answered.
"Darius tried to stop it and he couldn't," Shipman said. "Something was definitely wrong because he was yelling and screaming saying he couldn't stop the vehicle."
The accident occurred at night on a town street with a 25 mph speed limit. It was less than a block away from Karnes' home.
"I got a phone call from the (school) counselor and I had to ask him about three times, 'Give me those names again. Who was it?'" Karnes said.
Days later, the entire school said a tearful goodbye in the gymnasium Wooldridge and Tarkington had planned to play this season. Buddy Jewell's "Help Pour Out The Rain" played over the speakers as Wooldridge lay in his basketball warmups. Darius' older brother Chad, who played for Bernie the previous season, placed his basketball medals in his brother's casket.
"He said Darius would have won all these if he had a chance," Karnes said.
The basketball team honored Wooldridge and Tarkington with a short ceremony before their season opener Dec. 1. Dill and Shipman placed their old teammates' jerseys on the empty chairs beside the bench, then took commemorative jerseys to Wooldridge's and Tarkington's parents in the stands. It was the last game they attended.
"That was one of the hardest times," Shipman said. "It was really hard looking at them crying and knowing you'll never get to see them again."
Despite missing three projected starters - Shipman still hasn't played after injuring his knee in the accident - and using three freshmen for the first time in Karnes' coaching career, Bernie beat Puxico 82-56 that night. They also won the next night.
Three weeks later, Dill kneels in the backcourt before tipoff against Bell City. He whispers a few words, kisses his hand and touches the floor, then points to the sky. Dill, who wore a neck brace until three weeks before the season and wasn't cleared to play until two weeks later, scores 31 points in a lopsided loss to the state-ranked Cubs.
"It's amazing both physically and psychologically," Karnes said. "Those boys were so close. There were more than teammates."
The Mules have dedicated the season in honor of Wooldridge and Tarkington, whose jerseys will remain in the empty chairs the rest of the season. But for Dill, the bond is much longer.
"Personally," he said, "I'll play the rest of my life for them."