Lori Hill never let her children quit what they started, a detail her daughter Amanda was reminded of, much to the young girl's chagrin, after she signed up for cross country in middle school. There were few sports Amanda didn't play at some point, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and soccer all being among her passions from an early age, but one obvious flaw in this latest effort quickly became apparent.
"I'm not really sure why I signed up to run for fun," recalled Amanda, now a starting freshman midfielder for Big 12 soccer champion West Virginia.
Still, she stuck with it at her mom's insistence, and like most things Amanda tried, she was good at it. Good enough that on a Saturday in October 2006, 12-year-old Amanda took fifth place at an invitational featuring close to 200 runners in Grove City, Pa., about 80 miles north of her home in Washington, Pa. It was the best she had ever done, given the scale of the meet, and her initial apathy toward running notwithstanding, she was excited about it.
The meet was at 9 a.m., which left Amanda and Lori with time to drive to a 1 p.m. soccer game closer to home. As they made their way down the turnpike, Amanda started to change into her soccer uniform.
Dan Hill didn't know his mother and sister were anywhere near Grove City that day. Then again, that wasn't out of the ordinary. All four of the Hill children -- Dan, Dallas, Raymond and their younger sister -- played sports, but it was almost a full-time job to keep up with all of Amanda's athletic exploits. A decade older than Amanda, Dan and his girlfriend at the time were on their way from her college in Grove City to a friend's wedding when they crested a rise on the highway and saw an SUV on its side in the road in front of them. It looked like a new accident, with no emergency vehicles on the scene yet and no other cars stopped, so he pulled over to see if he could help.
He ran first toward the SUV, the roof so mangled and the perspective so unusual that he didn't recognize it, only to hear his girlfriend say something almost unimaginable from the other side of the road, where she had reached another figure.
"Danny, Danny, it's Amanda," she screamed.
Ejected from the vehicle when it crashed (according to Dan, the official police report said another car swerved in front of the Hills' vehicle, possibly causing an overcorrection that led to the rollover), Amanda somehow escaped the accident with a large gash and a deep muscle bruise to one leg and an array of other cuts and bruises over her body.
Lori did not survive.
At some point during the ensuing chaos, as Dan raced from one side of the road to the other in a panic, a male motorist had stopped to help. The man turned out to be a clergyman. He tried to calm Dan, stayed with him on the side of the highway as other cars impatiently tried to find a way through the congestion. The stranger gave Lori, who had been raised Catholic, last rites.
Then he told Dan there was nothing more the son could do for his mother, that he should go take care of his sister.
Dan never did get the man's name, and he wishes to this day that he could thank him for those moments of compassion. Dan got into the ambulance with Amanda and went to the hospital. There he told her that their mom had died. And then they tried to figure out what came next. They tried to figure out how to stay a family.
Lori had been a single parent for as long as Dan, her oldest child, could remember. She worked the midnight shift at a local hospital, slept while her kids were in school during the day and was awake and ready to take them to whatever practices or games they had in the afternoon and evenings -- and there was always something. It wasn't just sports. A piano player herself, she made sure all her kids played musical instruments, Amanda the violin. She wanted them to experience everything. She even missed the first state championship Amanda won in soccer because she was on a sailing trip with Raymond, the second-youngest sibling, in conjunction with the Boy Scouts.
"She didn't have much other time for her own things once we came along," Amanda said. "Herself wasn't a concern. At all."
The children's father, Jay, was an active part of their lives, but he lived well north of Washington, where Amanda was still in middle school and Raymond was in high school. In the aftermath of the accident, amid the grief and the mourning, came the practical question of where the youngest two siblings would live.
"The last thing I wanted them to have to do was lose their mom and then have to move an hour and a half away from all their friends and all the things that were normal in their life," Dan said.
Only 23 at the time, he volunteered to become the head of the household and eventually legal guardian. He had graduated from college a year earlier and was living in an apartment of his own in Washington, but he moved back in with Amanda and Raymond, first in the farmhouse the family occupied and then in a smaller house in town when upkeep on the original home grew to be too much to handle. Their father helped with everything, from the new house to a client list for Dan's sales job that would make it easier for him to take his two siblings to their activities or help coach Amanda's teams. But on a day-to-day basis, the three were an independent unit, for better or worse.
"Obviously, dealing with two teenagers in that situation, and teenagers already have moody moments and hormones and things, there were plenty of times when an argument about forgetting to take the garbage out with either of the two turned into just short of wanting to have a fistfight, screaming our heads off at each other," Dan said. "And you wonder, 'Are we fighting like this because we're siblings? Are we fighting like this because they're having trouble accepting the situation? Is it just a little bit of pent-up emotion getting out?' But we'd always calm down, relax and settle back down to normal."
The arrangement allowed Amanda a measure of continuity in soccer, letting her play in familiar surroundings with people she knew on both her high school and club teams. Told she would need at least five weeks to recuperate from the injuries she sustained in the accident, she was back on the field in three weeks. It was a place where she was still in control, where her world hadn't turned upside down.
"I could not wait to get back on the soccer field," Amanda said. "I think that sports -- obviously my mom was proud of me for everything that I did, but sports was kind of my thing that I always wanted to stand out in. And I think, at least I feel, it was one of the things my mom was proudest of.
"I couldn't wait to get back out on that field and get back after it. Just make her proud."
A mother of three young daughters herself, West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said she felt her "motherly instincts" tug at her when she learned Hill's story. She also saw a midfielder who could play for any team in the country.
"She's a leader; she's one of the most competitive women I've ever met," Izzo-Brown said. "I mean she's so competitive that it's almost a fault to her. She just wants it perfect, academically, athletically, she's just so hard on herself."
In that sense, Hill does come across as 18 going on 35, mature well beyond an average freshman. Time and again, parents or coaches would look at the way she carried herself on the soccer field in high school or club settings, look over at Dan, who was usually off roughhousing with, as he put it, "other little siblings who were stuck at practice," and wonder aloud how it was that Amanda was more mature than the person who was her legal guardian.
"We'd always kind of laugh about that, but it's not far from the truth, really," Dan said. "I'm just kind of a big kid, and I love that about myself. I don't argue that with anybody. I'm the way I am."
Yet when a stranger told him there was nothing more he could do for his mom, that he needed to go take care of his sister, he did exactly that. He did so that day and every day after, including the day she graduated from high school as the valedictorian of her class and the day she started as a freshman for a team that upset defending national champion Stanford.
Make no mistake, they still call each other names and try to beat the daylights out of each other from time to time, but they are reflections of the best that exists within each other.
"He's pretty much been my hero since I was like 4 years old," Amanda said.
Dan sees a lot of his mother in Amanda, not physically, where she more closely resembles her father, but in spirit. West Virginia freshman Maggie Bedillion, who played high school and club soccer with Amanda, describes her as "a sweetheart." Mountaineers teammate Frances Silva, Amanda's roommate on the road, recounts conversations between the two that go deep into the night in darkened hotel rooms and calls her "one of the most genuinely nice people" she has come across. Dan, even allowing for a brother's bias, contends she's "borderline saintly." All such descriptions would surely please a mother known for her kindness and the lengths she went to for her children.
But so, too, might the second part of the descriptions that Bedillion, Silva and even her brother offer, the part that comes after a pause. The part about the almost-manic competitor on the field, the perfectionist who hates to lose.
"I think it comes mostly through the people around me, whether I'm competing with them or just trying to make them proud," Amanda said. "People have done so much for me, I feel like becoming successful is kind of the best way to pay them back for that, so I do whatever I can to be the best that I can be and hope that's good enough."
Lori never let her children quit what they started. In Amanda's case, that includes being her mother's daughter.
"I think about her every day," Amanda said. "I have pictures up and stuff around my room. I definitely keep her with me. It's pretty easy to just think about what she would want me to be doing, and I make sure that's what I'm doing. I trust myself to make the right decisions now because that's what she would want and what would make her proud.
"I feel like I know what she wants me to do, so I just do that."