TURLOCK — With a black hood pulled down on her brow, Tina Benson sat stoically on the sidelines, spinning black tape off her socks.
The giggly Merced forward was numb from the cold. And the result.
Behind her, under a tent less than 20 yards away, the Turlock girls soccer team was all smiles and shoulder shrugs, unfazed by their team's 1-1 draw with Merced.
Turlock maintained its half-game lead over Merced in the Central California Conference table Wednesday afternoon, withstanding a relentless Merced attack.
Benson gave Merced an early cushion with a curling 18-yard shot to the far corner, but Turlock answered just before the half.
Sara Latham punched in the equalizer in the 36th minute as Turlock salvaged its second tie with Merced.
Turlock is 7-0-2, just clear of second-place Merced at 6-0-3. In both of their meetings, Merced held 1-0 advantages.
"Obviously, we want to win every game we play. We wanted to win this game," Turlock head coach Doug Sparry said. "But we're also smart."
Turlock (14-0-2) didn't need to win the clash against Merced (9-1-3). It needed only not to lose.
Merced, meanwhile, played with a sense of urgency. With three games left on Turlock's CCC calendar — including dates with winless Buhach Colony and winless Los Banos — Merced treated this as its championship game. It showed.
Merced outshot Turlock 9-3 over the final 40 minutes, won nearly every battle in the midfield and had a penalty kick bang off the crossbar.
At one point late, Sparry dropped all 11 of his players into the defensive third to protect the tie.
"They worked us at the end of the first half," Merced coach Brooke Wilson said. "But in the second half ... that was Merced soccer at its finest.
"We had a lot of opportunities. We just couldn't finish."
Amanda Campos came close. After Turlock sweeper Cassidy Costa was whistled for a pushing foul in the box in the 48th minute, Campos stepped to the marker with a chance to push Merced ahead.
Her penalty shot froze substitute goalie Macie Ireland, but hit off the left side of the crossbar.
Turlock had a shot of its own ring off the goal — Kayla Avila's 20-yard free kick in the 60th minute. The ball skipped once on the wet ground and off the far post.
Though no cards were given, the game was rough. Twice Merced goalie Stephanie Isenberg was shaken up in the first half. Benson and Turlock's Amanda Cervantes were warned for using their arms.
"It's already a physical game, but when you put something on the line, the level of aggressiveness picks up," Wilson said. "I think both teams were hungry and it came out in elbows and tackles."
James Burns is sports editor of the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.