ATWATER -- Steve Eccles and his Merced boys water polo team can finally breathe a little bit.
The Bears closed out the third quarter with four straight goals and went on to defeat Atwater 14-12 on Thursday afternoon to finally create separation between themselves and the Falcons atop the Central California Conference standings.
"Oh my God," Eccles said. "(Atwater) is the real deal. They played some great defense. Both teams had some great scorers out there tonight. That's big getting a win in their pool. Frankly, I wasn't sure we were going to do it. We've been battling some chemistry issues the last couple weeks, but I thought we played more as a team tonight."
The Bears (7-0 CCC, 17-2 overall) found themselves working from behind for most of the first three quarters.
Atwater's Justin Cowan had a big first half, scoring four of his five goals in the first two quarters. The Falcons (5-2) seemed to open the quarters strong, but Merced always closed with a flurry.
The Bears' Matt Cagle was all over the pool with four goals and nine steals. The Merced junior scored with three seconds left in the first half to pull his team into a 5-5 tie.
Atwater's Josh Heller (five goals) scored three third-quarter goals to give the Falcons the lead three different times, but each time Merced answered.
Isaac Santana scored on a pass from Brett Fogelberg in a man-up situation for Merced to pull the Bears even at 8-8 with 2:18 left in the third quarter.
The Bears took over with a go-ahead goal from Ethan Eagleton. The freshman found the ball in his hand in traffic in the middle of the pool and found the back of the net to give Merced a 9-8 lead with 1:41 left.
"I've been in that kid's kitchen all week about shooting it when he has a shot," Eccles said. "That's his biggest goal of the season. He plays great defense. That's why he's out there. When he scores a goal that's just gravy."
It took only 13 more seconds for Fogelberg (five goals) to score another Merced goal after a turnover. Fogelberg closed out the third quarter with a touch shot from outside that found the back of the cage with one second left to give the Bears an 11-8 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"It was nice to see us have a good third quarter," Eccles said. "We keep saying the third quarter is our quarter, but it definitely wasn't against Buhach Colony the other day and it definitely wasn't against these guys last time."
Merced 10, Atwater 3
ATWATER -- The Bears continued their march to another CCC title with a win over the Falcons.
Alison Miller paced Merced (7-0 CCC, 13-6 overall) with six goals and four steals. Laurel Carpenter added a goal and four steals for the Bears.