ATWATER -- Junior Estrada plays with a confidence that knows no bounds.
Merced High's goalkeeper has become a bit of showman in his first season in the net -- baiting opposing strikers by juggling the ball and challenging every ball that enters his box.
He calls it a defense mechanism. His way of combating the nerves.
"Nerves are my enemy," Estrada said. "I'm not trying to be cocky back there -- just confident.
"When I get nervous, I don't play as well. So that's how approach every game ... with confidence."
Wednesday night, there was nothing shaky about his game.
Estrada stopped a penalty kick off the boot of sharpshooter Jorge Carmona and came up with four big saves, preserving the Bears' 3-0 victory over Atwater at Falcon Field.
The win inched Merced closer to its first Central California Conference title in four years. The Bears can clinch the title with a win Monday against Los Banos.
Merced (8-1-1 CCC, 16-1-2) is two points ahead of Pitman (7-2-2) in the CCC standings. Pitman, which lost to Atwater on Monday, kept its hopes alive with a 2-0 win over Los Banos.
"We're that much closer," said Merced coach Bart McAfee, pumping his fists after the game. "We just need to win one more game. We're one win away."
Showing more emotion than he has all season, McAfee gushed about his team's effort under the lights for the first time all season and against the defending conference champions.
Three different players found the back of the net for Merced and the defense kept tight wraps on Atwater playmakers Carmona and Julian Horta, who were visibly frustrated after the game.
RIVERBANK 3, RIPON CHRISTIAN 0, at Ripon Christian -- The Bruins (10-1-1 Trans-Valley League) opened the scoring in the first half when Jesus Cerda headed home a cross from Ricardo Vigil on a corner kick.
HUGHSON 2, ESCALON 1, at Hughson -- Jesus Tejeda converted a penalty kick 15 minutes into the second half to help the Huskies (4-8 TVL) break a tie and upset the Cougars (9-3-1 TVL).
MANTECA 3, CENTRAL VALLEY 0, at Manteca -- Sierra Roberts had 10 kills and three aces to help the Buffaloes (6-4 Valley Oak League) defeat the Hawks (3-7 VOL) 25-16, 25-7, 26-24 in a match that Manteca coach Tim Horning said they couldn't afford to lose if they want to make the playoffs.
OAKDALE 3, WESTON RANCH 0, at Oakdale -- Jaci Powell had 11 kills and four service aces, and the Mustangs (9-1 VOL) dominated the Cougars (0-10 VOL) in a 25-6, 25-7, 25-9 win.
Bee staff contributed to this report.