LODI — Kristie Dunham tinkered with her lineup and begged her team to believe.
With their coach pulling all the right strings, the Merced girls water polo team clinched a Final Four berth in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 tournament.
Alison Miller scored five goals, but her supporting cast and cheerleading coach was the difference in a 12-9 victory over Bear River on Tuesday afternoon at Tokay High School.
Claire Propes had three goals and one assist and reserve goalie Rakelle Ellison came off the bench to make five saves as Merced clinched its first semifinal appearance since 2000.
"This is huge. We started shaky, but gained our composure and started playing good defense," said Dunham, whose team will play St. Francis on Thursday at Tokay. "We had players step up in that second half, giving us that momentum. The momentum shift in the third period was huge."
She isn't exaggerating.
All the Bears' problems in the first half seemed to fade after the intermission. With the setting sun in their eyes, Merced (20-9) outscored Bear River 4-0 in the third period, busting open what was a 6-6 game at the intermission.
Propes scored twice in the period. She converted on a man-up situation four minutes into the third to give Merced the lead for good, 7-6.
She tacked on another with less than a minute left in the period to make it 10-6.
The play originated in Miller's hands. The Central California Conference MVP rushed the Bear River defense, drawing three players to her.
Miller slipped a pass to Propes for an easy look on frame.
"I tell the girls all the time that the third quarter is when you win games. It's essential," Dunham said.
Meanwhile, Bear River's offense flat-lined, mustering one chance on goal in the third period.
"Defense is our strength," Propes said. "Like they always say: Defense wins games."
Miller shouldered the scoring load in the first half with four goals, but Merced struggled to find a rhythm against the Sierra Foothill League champions.
Passes were thrown without weight or direction, and too much space was given to Bear River's top playmakers, Andrea Bock and Nicole Groat.
Dunham didn't hesitate to use her bench. She rotated players on Bock and Groat, searching for a stopper.
She also changed goalies, calling on Ellison down the stretch.
"It's like baseball, we made fewer errors," Dunham said. "In sports, it's all about the possession. I think in the first half they have three (consecutive possessions). In the second half, we had the extra possessions."
The contributions came from everywhere, too.
Miller became the point person, driving and kicking the ball out to her teammates. She had three assists and four steals.
Brontae Gomes had two assists and two steals, while Kathryn Elgin (four steals) and Sarah Gaestel (two steals) harassed Bear River
"We're a whole team," Gomes said.
Division 1 Boys
It was a long day for the Stanislaus District's top Division 1 boys teams.
St. Mary's overcame sterling effort by Johansen's Corey Plaster in a 10-8 victory. Plaster had six goals.
In the early morning match, Isaac Santana scored two goals for Merced in a 13-3 loss to Davis.
Division 2 Girls
Shelby Stender scored five goals and Cassie Lee added three to lead Oakdale to a 14-2 victory over El Dorado.