Tuesday, May 11, 2004 at 03:38 AM

5/11/04 San Francisco Chronicle


Members of the Mills High girls basketball team were still asking questions Monday, a week after their beloved coach, Kelly Shea Gallo, succumbed to cancer.


It was two weeks short of her 36th birthday and a month before she was to guide them on a basketball trip to Australia.


Their questions weren't pleas of anguish, but rhetorical.


"How do you change 14 young lives?" the team wrote and presented during a memorial service attended by approximately 600 people Monday at St. Dunstan Church in Millbrae. "How do you look at an (embattled) season and change it into the most memorable season ever? How do you teach courage? How do you teach to be positive? And how do you teach life learning lessons that one will never forget?


"The answer to all these questions is you, our coach."


Many wondered how Shea Gallo led the 2003-04 Mills team to a 25-7 record after being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in August.


In the midst of chemotherapy, she paced the sidelines for all 32 games, often stomping her feet, barking instructions, always inspiring. The former four-sport athlete and graduate of Mercy High in Burlingame never sat, just like she hadn't her previous five seasons. It was her trademark.


"I didn't notice one difference in how she coached," said Burlingame coach Allan Stanbridge, who has coached 34 years on the Peninsula. "She and her team were as tough and disciplined as ever."


Stanbridge said even before her illness, Shea Gallo raised Mills to a new level.


"The measure of any coach is how hard your girls play for you, and no team ever played harder," Stanbridge said. "As competitive as they were, it was always in the right spirit. They shook hands afterward, were true ladies and you looked forward to the next game."


Shea Gallo persevered through the season because she truly believed more were on the horizon.


"She had hoped, she was a believer and she had a game plan," said her mother, Caroline Shea. "She dealt with this but continued on with her life, and coaching was a big part of it."


After the season, Shea Gallo continued to spearhead the fund-raising drive for the Australia trip, one she and her team made two years previously. With her chemotherapy winding down and radiation pending, Shea Gallo hosted a fund-raiser at the local center in front of 250 on March 26. She danced and exalted on staged, much like she had on the court.


"She was committed to complete the dream," Shea said.


A 10-hour surgery March 30 didn't go well. Tests revealed the cancer had spread -- or even possibly started -- in Shea Gallo's liver. It was fatal news. Much of her last month was spent confined to a hospital bed. No pacing. No stomping. "We hadn't planned on this, not now certainly," Shea said. "The worst part is she couldn't come home. It's been absolutely devastating. For everyone."


Shea said the team will complete Shea Gallo's quest and leave for Australia on June 14. Team members, though still torn and raw, said they'll take their coach with them, recalling a pregame meditation ritual.


"Before every game," the team wrote, "you would ask, 'Do you guys want the lights on or off?' Kelly, we want the lights on. We want you to shine your light on us forever and always."


-- An education fund has been set up for Shea's children, Mia (7) and Chloe (3). Donations can be set to "FBO Mia & Chloe Gallo," c/o Peninsula Bank of Commerce, 1001 Broadway, Millbrae, CA, 94030.


AAA softball: Washington (21-3) and International Studies Academy (20-5) meet at 3:30 p.m. today in the AAA/CIF San Francisco Section softball championship at Lang Field.


E-mail Mitch Stephens at mstephens@sfchronicle.com