MERCED — Meng Moua has no love for conditioning.
But you'd be hard-pressed to tell from watching him on the soccer pitch. The Merced High senior striker plays the game at a different level, often going harder and faster than everyone else on the field for the full 80 minutes.
It's one of the characteristics that's set Moua apart as one of the county's elite players for the last three years.
"I hate conditioning," Moua said. "When we do runs in practice I'm almost always last.
"When we get in the game it's another story. I think it's part natural endurance and part will.
"I hate to lose. I know you can't always win, but I'm going to do everything I can to make sure we do until the whistle blows."
It was that determination that helped salvage Merced's season a year ago and sparked a run to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 semifinals.
The Bears trailed crosstown rival Golden Valley 2-1 late in the second half of the final game of the regular season. A playoff berth was on the line.
Merced pressed hard, tying the game with four minutes to play. Moua put the Bears ahead for good two minutes later with a brilliant bit of dribbling and a left-footed strike.
Merced rode the momentum of the last-minute win into a 1-0 semifinal loss to eventual champion Jesuit.
The experience left Moua longing for more.
"We're pretty hungry this year," Moua said. "We knew we could have played better against (Jesuit) last year. We really wanted to beat them this year, and believe we still can.
"I want to win it all. We played some good teams in our preseason and got some confidence from it.
"We know we can do it, we just have to stay focused."
That's harder said than done. Merced (11-2, 0-1 Central California Conference) proved that in its lackluster 2-1 loss to Pitman in Monday's league opener.
If the Bears are to make a run at the CCC crown and the Division 1 title game, expect Moua to be in the thick of it. The graduations of Jovan Prado and Willy Gomez have made Moua the focal point of the Merced offense.
Moua, who is 5-foot-7 and weighs only 130 pounds, has responded with 13 goals in as many games, two shy of his career total entering the season.
"He's a stud. There's no doubt about that," Merced coach Bart McAfee said. "He's matured a lot over the last few years, and for a little guy, he's a beast.
"He's good on the ball and surprisingly strong. A lot of the offense filters through him, but that's a role he loves being in."
Moua's role might need to evolve now that Merced is in league play. With his reputation around the CCC, Moua is likely to have one or two defenders constantly in his hip pocket for the rest of the year.
"Everybody pretty much man marks him, so he isn't getting a lot of space," McAfee said. "He knows that, and so he may have to shift into more of a distributor."
Moua showed that wasn't an issue Monday as the whole Pitman defense overplayed him on the left wing. That allowed Francisco Rodriguez to sneak in at the far post and head home a perfect cross from Moua.
"I don't really care what my role is as long as we're winning," Moua said. "If I need to score, I'll score.
"If I need to set up goals, I'll do that.
"All I care about is getting back to the playoffs and trying to win it all in my last year."
Sun-Star sports writer Sean Lynch can be reached at 385-2476 or email@example.com.