MERCED — Bart McAfee knew it was just a matter of time.
Slow starts have plagued his Merced High boys soccer team, but the Bears had managed to fight through them en route to an 11-1 nonconference record.
That record might have left McAfee's squad a little overconfident as it opened Central California Conference play at home against Pitman on Monday afternoon.
Merced took the field with little energy and the Pride took full advantage, using a combination of speed and physicality to build a two-goal lead.
Finally, the Bears were facing a deficit too big to overcome. Pitman withstood Merced's second-half onslaught and held on for 2-1 victory.
"I've been telling them we can't keep relying on these second-half comebacks," McAfee said. "You're not always just going to be able to produce goals when you want to.
"We didn't take the field ready to play and you can't do that in the CCC. You'll get burned every time.
"We fought back in the second half. We hit some posts and had some chances, but you can't hand teams two-goal leads and expect to win."
In the opening 40 minutes, Merced definitely lacked the energy and pace it rode to last year's Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals.
The Bears' passing game was a little slow and predictable, and an aggressive Pitman defense turned poor passes into instant offense by stealing and counterattacking.
The Pride (8-1-3, 1-0 CCC) won't be accused of emulating Brazil's "beautiful game" anytime soon, but head coach Oscar Mercado plays to his team's strengths.
A big and physical defense wins balls and plays them quickly over the top and into space for a pair of speedy strikers.
Both aspects of Pitman's game gave the Bears (11-2, 0-1 CCC) fits.
Pitman's height owned the air and created several quality chances on set pieces. The Pride cashed in one of those on a corner kick in the 13th minute.
Tristan Bains curled in a cross from the left corner that Shawn Bassi headed home to make it 1-0.
Merced came close to answering in the 19th minute, but Jose Figueroa's 25-yard blast was turned aside by the crossbar.
Assad Sohail (three saves) kept the Pitman counterattack at bay for awhile, but Merced got beat in the 25th minute. A one-touch flick at midfield played Adolfo Maldonado free down the left wing.
He crossed the ball to a streaking Grant Tallent, who beat Sohail with a half volley to make it 2-0 at the half.
A much more aggressive Merced team took the field in the second half.
The Bears started winning every 50-50 ball and Pitman suddenly had trouble getting out of its own end.
Merced outshot the Pride 12-4 in the second half and got on the board just four minutes in.
With a little hustle and some dazzling footwork, senior midfielder Meng Moua got the entire Pride defense to shift to him on the left wing. That allowed Francisco Rodriguez to sneak in at the far post and head home Mou's feathered cross.
Merced continued to threaten, but couldn't best Jesus Nunez (seven saves) again.
"I think our preseason (success) was too good and we came in overconfident," Moua said. "We thought we were just going to roll them.
"It's a learning experience. We know we'll need to be better the next time out."
Golden Valley 4, Atwater 1
ATWATER Esten Schroeder scored a pair of goals to lead the Cougars to a road win at Falcon Field. Jonathan Trillo scored in the loss for the Falcons.
Merced 258, Livingston 331
Marissa Castillo shot a team-best 45 as Merced (6-0) beat Livingston in a nonconference golf match. Chrystal Gutierrez led the Wolves (3-3) with a 58.
Atwater 311, Golden Valley 329
CHOWCHILLA Molly Williams' 54 and Emma Reyes' 55 helped Atwater beat Golden Valley at Pheasant Run. Ashley Rucobo led the Cougars with a 62.