ATWATER — It wasn't the easy, convincing victory Gus Oliveros was hoping for.
But after his squad dropped points in five of its last seven Central California Conference matches, the Buhach Colony boys soccer coach wasn't going to complain.
The Thunder didn't produce much offense, but managed to earn and convert a penalty kick in the 34th minute and then made sure it had eight men behind the ball the rest of the way in a 1-0 victory over Merced.
The win leapfrogs BC over the Bears and back into the third place, the final league playoff spot, with three matches to play.
The Thunder (13-6-3, 5-5-2 CCC) holds a one-point edge over Merced (17-7-1, 5-6-1 CCC), but has the tougher remaining schedule with first-place Pitman and second-place Atwater looming.
"I'm just happy to get out of this slump," Oliveros said. "We had to have this one, but we don't really get any time to enjoy it.
"We're back in third. Now we have to keep ourselves there.
"Teams did a real good job adjusting to what we did against them. We needed to make some adjustments to them. Today we stuck to our game plan and it worked out."
BC took the field with the kind of desperate energy you'd expect from such a big match, producing two dangerous looking shots in the first two minutes.
Merced withstood the initial onslaught and calmly began to take over the game with its possession.
Meng Moua was sprung free on a breakaway with a long throw in the third minute. Buhach goalkeeper Miguel Guerrero was up to the task, turning Moua away with a last-second diving save.
It was the start of a big afternoon for Guerrero, who had 10 saves.
"I think it might have helped get me into the game," Guerrero said of the big save. "You always kind of want some action early to get going."
Guerrero had no shortage of action as the Thunder were content to defend in numbers and attempt to spring junior Jose Ramirez on counterattacks.
Merced outshot BC 8-5 in the first half, with five of those on goal. But, as has been the case throughout CCC play, the Bears' inability to finish came back to haunt them.
Ramirez found space down the right wing in the 34th minute and was taken out by defender Billy Thao when he tried to cut in toward the goal.
Rodrigo Avila stepped up and delivered a perfect spot kick into the lower-left corner of the net to give BC a 1-0 lead.
"I'm pretty frustrated right now," Merced coach Bart McAfee said. "We give up so many penalty kicks, we might as well start down 1-0.
"You look at the stats and it looks like we dominated, but they let us dominate.
"They let us have all that possession and then just played defense. Give them credit for stopping us.
"We needed at least a tie. Now we have to win our last three games to be sure."
Even with BC packing in its defensive third, Merced produced a couple quality chances to equalize.
Miguel Pulido may have had the best chance just two minutes into the second half.
Guerrero made a diving save on a shot from distance, but couldn't hold the ball. Pulido was there to pounce on the rebound, but couldn't lift his shot over a helpless Guerrero.
Jay Bounlangsy almost leveled the game in the 71st minute, but had his header on a corner kick cleared off the line by a Thunder defender.
"It was definitely a tense game," Oliveros said. "But guys stepped up when we needed them to make a play.
"They kept coming, but we stayed organized back there and Miguel made every save he needed to."