CARMICHAEL — Meng Moua sprinted for the left wing in search of space.
The Merced High striker then reversed back to the midfield and tried to beat Jesuit over the top. It didn't matter how the junior went about it Wednesday afternoon, at least one Jesuit defender was with him stride for stride.
He wasn't alone.
The Bears' usual speed advantage was negated by the entire Marauder back line, making scoring chances few and far between.
Jesuit's offense didn't have the same issues. Niko Hansen scored a hat trick to help the Marauders to a 4-0 Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 semifinal victory.
Top-seeded Jesuit (26-1-1) advances to play No. 2 Granite Bay in Saturday's title game.
"The better team advanced," Merced midfielder William Gomez said. "We started strong, but they're a good team and they gave us a game.
"Hats off to them."
The game was far closer at the beginning with Merced (13-8-8) getting off to an ideal start. Jesuit looked tentative in the opening 20 minutes and Merced took advantage, pressing the Marauders and creating offense out of midfield turnovers.
The Bears failed to produce anything to bother goalkeeper Luc Barbe (two saves), however, and paid the price for it in the 22nd minute.
A failed Merced clearance led to a quick give-and-go between Kaba Alkebulan and Hansen.
Merced's last defender made a desperate last-ditch tackle, but all but whiffed. Despite the minimal contact, Hansen went down in a heap and was rewarded a penalty.
The senior converted the PK and the game's dynamic permanently changed.
"We talked about it before the game," Merced coach Aaron Ruiz said. "A game like this, that first goal is huge. We came out of the gate like we do with a lot of energy, but unfortunately we couldn't sustain that pressure. They got picked up by the penalty."
The goal settled the Marauders and they began to take over the game's possession.
It easily could have been 2-0 going into intermission, but Bear goalkeeper Evan Quevas (six saves) came up with the save of his young career in the first minute of injury time.
A defensive miscommunication left John Bovill with a clear run at goal from inside the 18, but he fired right at Quevas. Alkebulan was there to one-time the rebound, but Quevas somehow recovered and knocked that shot away as well.
"We felt pretty good at halftime," Moua said. "One goal wasn't a big deal. We knew we could come back.
"We just never got that one, really good chance."
Merced's defense more than held its own against a talented offensive unit, but its only gaff let Evans make it 2-0 in the 55th minute. He collected an errant pass about 10 yards onto his side of the field and began to counter the other way.
The Bear backline was so concerned with holding the Marauder runners offside, that no one picked up the ball. Evans sprinted 60 yards to score.
He put the game away in the 73red minute with his third goal, and Jesuit tacked on a late goal on a free kick.
"I felt like we didn't do a real good job of connecting in the first half," Jesuit coach Paul Rose said.
"Merced played us tough. You can see how they scored five goals on Armijo. They were definitely the best team we've played in the section this year."