As the minutes ticked down and the scores from Turlock continued to roll in, a buzz began to emanate from the Merced High School practice football field.
The Bears were minutes away from a victory over crosstown rival Golden Valley, and the stars seemed to be aligning for the first Central California Conference girls soccer title in school history.
The only thing that could muck up the storybook finish was a villain.
The Cougars’ Elizabeth Davila happily assumed the role after moving from left back to striker in the final minutes. The junior only needed one chance, chasing down a through ball and sliding it under goalkeeper Jessika McClesky in the 79th minute to earn GV a 2-2 draw and deny Merced the title.
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The tie coupled with Turlock’s 0-0 draw with Pitman gives the Bulldogs the conference crown by one point over the Bears.
“That’s the worst part of it,” Merced coach Bladimir Murillo said. “To know we got the result we needed out of Turlock and to be two minutes away from the school’s first title hurts me. I can only imagine how the girls feel right now.”
At the very least, it had to feel like a sucker punch after the Bears (14-4-3, 10-3-2 CCC) controlled the last 50 minutes of the game.
With their place in the playoffs already cemented and nothing on the line beyond local bragging rights, Golden Valley coach Lance Eber told his team to treat the evening like a playoff game. And the Cougars (12-6-3, 8-4-3) seemed to take it to heart, coming out with the quicker step and applying early attacking pressure on Merced. It paid dividends just five minutes into the game as the Cougars were awarded a penalty for a hard collision inside the 18-yard box. Brittany Cervantes converted the spot kick into the bottom corner to give Golden Valley a 1-0 lead.
It took Merced a little while to respond, but freshman Carris Burges equalized the score just before the half with a display of power and determination.
Burges made a penetrating run from the top of the 18, fighting through a pair of defenders. She eventually lost the ball, but sliding goalkeeper Marina Arroyo couldn’t corral it, either. The ball caromed back to Burges, who finished into the empty net.
Merced looked poised to take the lead 12 minutes into the second half when it was awarded a penalty kick. Arroyo (six saves) kept things deadlocked, however, turning away Niccole Salm’s shot. Burges picked her team up seven minutes later when Hannah Esquivel carved up the GV defense with a perfectly weighted through ball. The freshman beat a charging Arroyo to the near post to give the Bears a 2-1 lead.
“We were feeling good,” Burges said. “My teammates set me up a couple times and I was able to finish. You never really expect the game to change like that in the last minute. We were thinking we had it, but Davila made a great shot.”
The equalizer came on Davila’s first chance after moving up top.
“It felt amazing to score that goal,” Davila said. “I saw the ball go through and I jumped on it. I held off a defender and then kind of cut around Jess. Easily the biggest one I’ve ever scored in high school.”