Considering what was at stake, the Turlock High-Merced High water polo matchup on Thursday afternoon had enough adrenaline to power a freight train. Both teams entered the highly anticipated meeting with undefeated league records, as the winner would undoubtedly earn a mental edge in future showdowns.
The last minute of the match — held at the Steve Feaver Aquatic Center in front of dozens of fans — was frantic. Merced rallied from a three-goal deficit in the fourth period to cut it to one. The Bulldogs then applied smart, calculated defense to hold on for the 8-7 victory, enough to give them a 4-0 record in the Central California Conference and 11-3 overall.
“Kids have to prove themselves,” Turlock coach Steve Feaver said. “Everybody talks like, ‘We can do this. We can rally. We can do this.’ But the proof of what we say is in our actions. And our actions today were spectacular. They beat a very, very good Merced team and I tip my hat to this team.”
But also consider this: Turlock was without scoring leader and center-forward Chris Callahan, who is out indefinitely after dislocating his shoulder in the Bulldogs’ 13-11 win two days earlier.
Who stepped up in his absence?
Callahan’s replacement — backup center-forward Manny Bettencourt — led the Bulldogs’ offensive attack with three goals, Grant McNulty and Davis Woods had two apiece and Morely Baker’s lone score came just as the last seconds ticked in the first half, when he flung a shot from one-third of the pool that sneaked by Merced goalkeeper Nick Fazari (13 saves).
But the offense wasn’t the only thing working for the Bulldogs.
The defense was spot on, highlighted by an eight-save performance by goalkeeper Neil Wraske, who sensed that the Bears (3-1 CCC, 11-4 overall) stepped up their intensity in the final minutes.
Bettencourt scored with 3 minutes, 3 seconds left to make it an 8-5 Turlock advantage before Merced surged back with two much-needed goals, with Connor Green finishing off the rally with his third score of the game.
“It’s always a letdown,” Wraske said about Merced’s sudden surge. “But we had to remain strong and keep that morale that we’re still in this.”
The final sequence went like this: Merced stole the ball and called timeout with 43 seconds left. Turlock pressured Merced’s Kaleb Jones to take a bad shot, with the Bulldogs recovering the ball with 20.8 seconds remaining. Merced defenders fouled Wraske, forcing the Turlock junior goalie to attempt a shot across the pool and overthrowing it. Merced got the ball back with 12 seconds left, but that was not enough time to tie it up.
It was quite a finish to a match that had so much at stake. Players knew this, considering that the Bulldogs barely escaped with a 6-5 overtime win against the Bears in the championship game of the Central Cal Tournament at Turlock High on Sept. 18.
On Thursday, the crowd roared every time there was a score, while players celebrated with fist-pumps and one Merced player yelled in joy and repeatedly slammed his arms against the water after knocking in a goal.
“You’re fighting the whole game and you get to the fourth quarter and the whole fourth quarter is a different game entirely,” Bettencourt said. “Especially when it’s close like that — a one-goal difference — you keep fighting for the edge, we’re fighting to keep the lead. They’re fighting to try to get the ball back and trying to tie the score to send it to overtime. It was each team trying their hardest, giving it a 110 percent.”
To contact Chhun Sun, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2041.