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The mood of this high school football season took a drastic turn the night of June 16.

Stone Hill and Nick Mankin, two Red Lion players and about-to-be seniors, died in a crash when their vehicle struck a utility pole. The raw reality hit the Red Lion football team the next morning, when coach Jesse Shay gathered players and coaches. The grieving began then, and it will continue with each Friday night, practice and any moment the remaining friends and teammates of Hill and Mankin gather.

Hill was supposed to be the Lions' starting middle linebacker for a third straight year.

"We were going to give both of them expanding roles," Shay said.

Mankin was supposed to return at right guard, where he started last fall for the first time.

"We knew we would take some lumps with him at the beginning of last year, but we knew we would gain him some key experience," Shay said.

Hill was to see more time at fullback this fall. Mankin would have played more on the defensive line. Red Lion has been trending upward as a team for the past two seasons, and Hill and Mankin, two players who don't get newspaper headlines, were reasons why.

Emotionally, this will be a challenge.

When friends and teammates of Hill and Mankin visited Slab Road in Lower Chanceford Township less than 24 hours after the crash in June, they looked for anything and found something. One item was a family bracelet football players wore last year. Teammate Dylan Gurreri said Hill had a tan line around his wrist from wearing it so often.

In some fashion, family will be the theme of Red Lion's season and the interactions it has with other teams. The term can become cliche in sports, including football, but this has some true meaning to it. During a memorial for Mankin the weekend after his death, Red Lion was joined by players from Susquehannock — Mankin's old school — and West York.

"Having people around helps, it really does," said South Western athletic director and former football coach Don Seidenstricker, whose team lost junior Benjamin Bynaker in a double-murder suicide during the 2011 season.

Red Lion has felt this pain before.

In 2006 the school mourned senior football standout Matt Barshinger, who died that March of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was only 18.

Hill was just 17.

Mankin 16.

Life isn't supposed to end there. The best memories come then, regardless if you're on the field cracking pads, in the marching band or watching from the stands.

The Lions' first game is Sept. 4 at Hershey. It's first home game is the following Friday vs. Manheim Township.

All of those moments will register deeply for the Lions, who will begin their third season with Shay in charge. He came from Bishop McDevitt, where he was defensive coordinator for the Harrisburg-based Catholic school.

"I've had experience with former players passing soon after they graduated," Shay said, "but I've never had an experience like this, and I pray to God I don't have it again."

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