ATWATER — Whether it's in the pool or on the basketball court, Atwater High seniors Ben Peterson and Josh Heller have played on the same team for almost a decade.
There's a comfort knowing where the other one will be at all times.
Peterson and Heller took turns playing at 2-meters and combined for 13 goals as the Falcons boys water polo team held off Merced 17-14 in a key early season Central California Conference matchup at Atwater High.
"We've been teammates playing on the same teams since we were 8 years old," Peterson said. "We're at the point now where we don't have to say much when we're out there. It just comes naturally."
The poolside bleachers were filled to capacity to see the top two CCC teams slug it out and the schools didn't disappoint.
Even though it was the second conference game for both teams, the meeting had a championship feel to it.
"I've never played in a water polo game like this," Peterson said. "We knew it was going to be like this coming in. I think this is the biggest game of the season until we go play them at their pool."
The action was fast and furious as they raced up and down the pool, pouring in goals.
Atwater goalie Corbett McDaniel (11 saves) fired a shot at the halftime buzzer that glanced off of Merced's Matt Cagle and into the net for a goal that tied the game at 9-9.
While Peterson (seven goals) and Heller (six goals) carried the Falcons' offense, Merced's Isaac Santana (five goals) and Matt Cagle (five goals) kept the Bears in the game.
"I think everyone says Atwater is the team, I think they're overlooking us," Merced coach Kit Gratton said. "We're pretty darn tough, too. We've put a challenge when we play them."
The Falcons (11-1 overall, 2-0) turned the tide in third quarter with four straight goals to open up a 13-10 lead. Peterson scored three goals during the run.
"We couldn't do anything right in that first half," said Atwater coach David Svendsen. "We threw balls away and made other mistakes. In the second half we ramped up our defense. Merced's a very mobile team and we were able to prevent them from moving the ball around the perimeter."
The size of the Falcons gave the Bears defense fits. With Peterson (6-foot-5) and Heller (6-3), Atwater had big targets to run their offense through.
"Big guys in a small pool," Gratton said. "They were able to use that to their advantage. We did the best we could against some big horses. Ben Peterson is a big guy."
The Bears still made it interesting in the fourth quarter. After a pair of Heller goals, Atwater threatened to put the game away with a 16-12 lead.
However, Merced responded quickly as Cagle found Ethan Eagleton open for a goal, and later Josh Fluetsch for a score, to pull the Bears within 16-14 with 1:52 left.
That's when Svendsen relied on his assistant coach and father, Roddy, who has coached on and off for about 30 years.
"That's when we called a timeout," David Svendsen said. "I rely on my dad in those situations because he has all that experience.
"We calmed our guys down and told them to play their game. Do what we do. We were able to get a mismatch and score that last goal."
Heller scored with 50 seconds left to put the game away.
Merced 8, Atwater 1
Kathryn Elgin scored five goals as the Bears improved to 2-0 in the CCC and 6-4 overall.
Jane Eckles chipped in with two assists and four steals for the Bears.