Merced, Turlock girls battle elements in draw

MERCED -- A battle between Central California Conference contenders came down to a lucky bounce.

The Turlock girls soccer team received a gift from Merced's bumpy, uneven surface early in the first half, quickly grabbing the 1-0 lead.

Merced answered, but failed to get the win it wanted against the three-time defending conference champs.

Merced vs. Turlock, Part I, proved to be nothing more than a stalemate on Monday afternoon: A 1-1 draw.

"It's always a big game when it's Turlock," Merced coach Brooke Wilson said. "For the last couple of years, it's been them and us. We've been in their shadows, so to speak."

Neither team was very sharp and both sides struggled to adjust to a strong wind during the first half.

Turlock (9-0-1, 2-0-1 CCC) lifted balls into the air, only to see its attempt knocked down by the wind.

Merced (7-1-2, 2-0-1), playing with the wind at its back, had most of its clearing shots go beyond forwards Tina Benson and Katalina McKee.

"(Wind is) a big factor," Merced sophomore Alexa Lawler said. "It plays a big role when you're trying to clear balls. It helps when it's on your side, but it goes both ways."

Turlock struck in the 10th minute on an assist from Mother Nature.

Shelby McClain booted a seemingly harmless ball into the 18-yard box, where goalie Stephanie Isenberg (five saves) waited to collect it.

Then things got squirrely.

The bumpy surface redirected the ball, carrying it over Isenberg's head and off the crossbar. Forward Sara Latham raced in, pushing it into the open net to make it 1-0.

"Unlucky," Turlock coach Dennis Bishop said along the sideline, referring to the Merced's bad break.

Merced wasn't down long, notching the equalizer five minutes later. Camille McKee threaded a long cross into the box for Benson, who slipped her shot by Turlock goalie Maecie Ireland (two saves).

McKee capitalized on Turlock's top defender and captain, sweeper Cassidy Costa, being on the sideline. Costa was tagged with a yellow card in the 13th minute and could only watch Benson ripple the net.

Lawler matched Costa's ability to control the back line. The physical sweeper used her shoulder and leg stabs to knock Turlock forwards off the ball and their lines.

"She's a savage back there. She's one of our quietest players -- you never hear her -- but she's our toughest," Wilson said. "So smart, so calm. And she doesn't panic.

"We didn't play our game today. A lot of balls in the air. Scrambling. But thank God we had her back there. I wish I could clone her."