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Gorman: A chance to celebrate The Nance

| Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, 10:46 p.m.
Point Park athletics
Point Park women's basketball coach Tony Grenek (right) pictured with Nancy Gallagher at last year’s Cancer Awareness Game against Daemen on Feb. 1, 2013. This year's game Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, is in memory of Gallagher, who died of cancer Nov. 25, 2013.

Maeve Gallagher kept her head down, tugging on her tube socks and tying her shoelaces during Point Park's pregame pep talk.

This was a big game for the Pioneers against rival Daemon. Here was the honorary coach, speaking while wearing a pink scarf on her bald head on Cancer Awareness Day.

“I don't think I picked my head up for the longest time,” Maeve said, recalling the game from last February. “I didn't want to get emotional.”

That's because the honorary coach was her mother, Nancy, who was in a five-year fight with rare mucosal melanoma discovered in her esophagus.

It was a dramatic moment when a teary-eyed Maeve finally made eye contact with her ailing mother.

“She looked at me like I was a weirdo,” Maeve said. “She was like, ‘You've got a game to play.' ”

The Nance had one to win.

That's what everyone called Nancy Gallagher, the prototypical coach's wife and athlete's mother who always smiled in the shadows while supporting her sports-driven family.

Her husband, Bill, has won seven City League championships as football coach at Perry Traditional Academy.

Their oldest child, John, played basketball on Perry's 2003 PIAA runner-up and at La Roche. Maeve was a three-sport athlete at Point Park and now is an assistant soccer coach at Mt. Union. Her daughter Keegan swam and played lacrosse at Seton-La Salle. The youngest, Brenna, played sports until attending Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School.

“She found time for all the athletics schedules,” Bill said of Nancy, a neonatal nurse practitioner at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville. “She always made sure she had time for her kids. That was No. 1 on her list. She loved her career but her kids more.”

So it was a thrill for The Nance to sit on the bench for one game the past two seasons at Point Park, which won both times.

“We joke about that all the time,” Point Park women's coach Tony Grenek said. “She's the only undefeated coach in Point Park history.”

Not to mention the only undefeated coach in the Gallagher family.

When The Nance lost her battle with cancer Nov. 25 at age 54, Point Park decided to honor her memory.

The Pioneers, 23-2 and ranked No. 25 in the NAIA, will play their Cancer Awareness Game against Indiana Southeast at 1 p.m. Saturday at CCAC-South, with proceeds benefiting the Pittsburgh Promise in a scholarship established in her name.

“It's really heartwarming, the kindness that Point Park University has shown our family,” Bill said. “That's what gets us through everything, the support of friends and family and even strangers.”

The rough-and-tumble Gallaghers call The Nance their warrior. They adopted the song “The Warrior's Code” by Dropkick Murphys as her anthem: You're the fighter, you've got the fire; The spirit of a warrior, the champion's heart; You fight for your life because the fighter never quits; You make the most of the hand you're dealt; Because the quitter never wins; No!

That's the lesson Grenek hopes his team learns from The Nance: Given a six-month prognosis, she lived 60 months and fought to the end.

Grenek promised to let his team shave his head at center court if they could raise $3,000 last year. They raised $3,380.

Then April Austin hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer in front of The Nance and the Point Park bench for a 54-52 victory. The Pioneers, especially Maeve, took delight in buzzing off their coach's hair.

“It was a great wake-up call for our basketball team,” Grenek said. “It really hits home when somebody close to you, especially a teammate, has a parent going through something like that.

“You're making these donations and not knowing exactly where the money is going, knowing only that it's going to research. To see Nancy there and know what she was going through taught our girls that basketball isn't that important compared to life and to appreciate everything you have.”

This time, Maeve can keep her head up when she sits on the Point Park bench as honorary coach for The Nance.

There is a game to play.

And a fight to win.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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