Shootout magic lifts Bears to win

STOCKTON -- The original was a smash hit, chock full of action, drama and suspense. The sequel was a bore.

Merced-Pitman III? Nothing short of an epic.

After 100 minutes of soccer and seven penalty kicks at Lincoln High, the Sac-Joaquin Section's South bracket finally has its title contender.

Merced cashed in on all four of its shots in the shootout and goalie Junior Estrada came up with a big stop on Pitman's first shot to help Merced win 2-1 and send the Bears into Saturday's Division I title game for the first time in program history.

Merced won the shootout 4-1 after 80 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtimes left the game tied 1-1.

Manuel Garcia-Resendez clinched the victory with a hard shot inside the left corner, triggering a wild celebration in the penalty box.

Saturday, Merced will play the winner of today's North bracket semifinal between Jesuit and Davis-Yolo.

"We made it," Garcia-Resendez shouted after emerging from a dogpile. "The first game (Pitman) beat us and then we beat them. It was only fair that the third game had to be a tie and had to go to penalty kicks. Pitman is a good team. They played their hearts out. Either way the (Central California Conference) is going to represent."

Merced's only hope was to somehow extend the game to a penalty kick shootout.

Bart McAfee's boys were gassed, and his top two players -- strikers Octavio Murillo and Cristian Alvarez -- battled cramps throughout.

"When we got into overtime, I told my brother that our only chance was to get to penalty kicks, " McAfee said. "We were spent."

Merced (21-1-2) didn't waste its opportunity.

Hector Berber opened the shootout with a low line drive inside the right post, setting the stage for Estrada's heroics on Pitman's first attempt.

The first-year goalie said he read the eyes of Pride sweeper Dillon Thomas just before his shot. Estrada's intuition was spot-on. He ranged to his right, landing on top of the ball to give Merced the early advantage.

"We made eye contact," said Estrada, his voice shaky from the adrenaline. "I know if a guy looks one direction, he's probably going to shoot it the other way."

The stop changed a match the Pride (16-7-4) clearly dominated after halftime.

Pitman shanked its second penalty kick over the top of the goal, while Merced kept a beat on the back of the net.

Alvarez, Eddie Cuevas and Garcia-Resendez all scored on their attempts to clinch a berth in the title match.

The match got off to a sloppy start. Both teams' ball-control offenses were neutralized by a wet, slick pitch.

The slick conditions actually gifted Merced a 1-0 lead in the 32nd minute. Cuevas' cornerkick skipped off a Pitman defender at the front post and into the goal.

Pitman answered four minutes into the second half on a cornerkick of its own.

Jose Ban curled a cross into the box, where Eduardo Mezas redirected it into the back of the net.