Ali Ayers and Gabrielle Bettencourt know about pressure.
The sophomore duo applied relentless amounts of it while forging the core of the Merced College women's water polo defensive front a year ago.
This season, though, the word "pressure" has taken on a whole knew meaning.
Aside from the regular responsibilities assumed by returning starters and that of Ayers' captaincy, the tandem has the added heat of an inexperienced goalkeeper playing behind them.
"It's a lot more pressure on the defense to get back in transition and not even allow shots," Ayers said. "We appreciate what Jayme (Westbrook) is doing and we have to make things easier for her."
For the first time in Bill Halpin's long tenure as Lady Devils coach, he finds himself without an experienced keeper.
Starter Cat Brigham graduated and just prior to the school year, heir apparent Melanie Cannon informed Halpin she wouldn't be returning.
"We almost always carry two or three goalies just to avoid this kind of thing," Halpin said. "We've never been in this situation before.
"It's going to be a tough year."
While Halpin continues to work his resources in search of a true goalie, Westbrook has volunteered for the job.
"I did it because my team needed someone to step up and I had the most experience," Westbrook said.
How much experience?
"I played two games as a freshman in high school when my team was up, like, 15 goals," the freshman said with a grin. "I feel OK about the angles and positioning in the cage.
"The toughest part has been getting my legs under me."
Westbrook's team is determined to make life easier for her.
"We can't let all the pressure fall on her shoulders," Bettencourt said. "We have to score and take advantage of our offensive chances.
"And then we're going to have to counter back on defense."
To help compensate for his team's defensive focus, Halpin has run them through an extensive conditioning program with morning workouts and afternoon practices.
"We're going to have problems, so it's important we can out-swim teams," Halpin said. "We've got kids whom are working hard and are going to do everything in their power to help us win."
Halpin will have a better idea of where the team stands after opening the season this weekend at the at the Sac City tournament.
MC then opens play in its new Coast Conference -- at home next Wednesday against DeAnza.
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at email@example.com.