Abraham Santana looked out of options.
With the game tied late in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, the Merced senior caught a pass just in front of the El Capitan cage. Before Santana had time to react, a pair of Gaucho defenders and goalkeeper Braiden Ward converged on Santana in a mass of bodies.
Santana had the ball knocked away for a moment, but kept his cool and emerged from the scrum with a backhanded shot into the empty goal with 1 minute, 17 seconds to play. El Capitan had one final chance to tie, earning a kick out on its ensuing possession. A shot from distance simply rattled the right post, however, as the Bears pulled out the 8-7 victory to remain undefeated in Central California Conference play.
“He’s the most talented guy I’ve seen play,” Merced coach Kit Grattan said of Santana. “That final goal was all about determination and there’s nobody you’d rather have the ball in their hands in that situation. I’m glad he’s on our team, let’s just say that.
“I thought we played well overall. We just didn’t turn in four full quarters. We had kind of a slow start and then I think we got a little tired at the end, but we did a nice job finding a way to win.”
With a big, lively crowd and the promise of a blossoming rivalry, the Wednesday night tilt had all the trappings of a heavyweight fight. The two teams delivered on that promise.
Fueled by a rowdy home crowd and a 1-2 start to league play, El Capitan came out swinging, building a 3-1 lead after one. Andrew Brown opened the scoring, going coast to coast after making a steal on a Merced man-up situation. The Bears (3-0 CCC) answered with a Hayden Giebler goal, but the Gauchos went right back on top with their ensuing possession. Evan Spiva (team-high three goals) converted a 5-meter goal and then set up Brown with 11 seconds left to build a 3-1 lead.
Merced answered with three goals in three consecutive possessions in the second quarter to take a 4-3 lead into the break. Alec Propes (game-high four goals) fired one in from the left wing and Santana drove in uncontested on the right wing seconds later to tie the game. The two paired up on the next possession, with Santana setting up Propes to give Merced its first lead.
“I felt like we started turning the ball over a little too much in that second quarter and it allowed Merced to get some momentum going,” Gauchos coach Rodd Parker said. “When we limit our turnovers, we play pretty well. Our defense started forcing some turnovers of our own, and we were winning the transition battle in the fourth quarter.
“We did a great job creating chances, but weren’t efficient enough once we did. We went just 1 for 6 in our 6-on-5s and it’s tough to win a close game when you do that.”
Merced expanded its lead to 6-4 going into the fourth quarter, but El Capitan produced one final push.
Santana found Propes at the backdoor to make it 7-5 Bears with 5:45 to play, but the Merced offense found it tough going the rest of the way. The Gauchos got things level with back-to-back scores as Zak Jones converted a man-up situation and Spiva struck from about seven meters out on EC’s next possession.
The Gauchos had a chance to go in front when they drew a 5-meter shot with 2:48 to play. Spiva’s shot struck the post and his follow up was turned aside by Nathan Latronica.
Santana made them pay about a minute-and-half later.
“Basically I just did whatever I could to get the shot off,” Santana said. “I saw the goalie came out, so I just took my chance and shot.
“They got back into the game and it got a bit scary, but knowing that we got the lead and won this game is a good feeling, especially at their house.”
The girls matchup wasn’t quite as competitive as the nightcap with El Capitan (4-0 CCC) building building an 11-goal lead at the break and cruising to a 17-4 victory.
The Gauchos were paced by Hope Stokes (four goals, one assist, four steals) and Makenzie Wenham (four goals, one assist, three steals). Madison Nolen chipped in three goals and three assists.
Boys Water Polo
Buhach Colony 7, Pitman 5 in Turlock – Zach Fookes and Jonahs Chavez paced the Thunder (2-1 CCC) with two goals each as BC spread the scoring around in a road win over Pitman. Daniel Navarro made 14 saves to help the Thunder keep pace in the CCC standings.
Girls Water Polo
Buhach Colony 9, Pitman 6 in Turlock – Erin McBride carried the scoring load, finding the back of the net six times, while sister Gwynne chipped in two goals, two assists and three steals to help keep the Thunder (3-0 CCC) unbeaten in league play. Pamela Solano had a team-high seven steals and Regina Navarro made eight saves in the victory.
Turlock 17, Golden Valley 7 in Merced – Grace Mello scored all seven of the Cougars goals and finished with five steals as GV dropped to 0-4 in the CCC.