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Turlock squads sunk by Merced water polo
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Thanks to constant double-teaming defense from Turlock Highs boys water polo team, Merced star Isaac Santana (center, in white) was held to only three goals Wednesday night. - photo by MIKE JONES/The Journal

It’s always a daunting task when Merced High’s boys and girls water polo teams come to town.

And so it was Wednesday when Merced, the Central California Conference’s top overall program, visited Turlock High’s gorgeous swim center and immediately put pressure on both of the home teams.

To their credit, the Bulldogs hung tough, withstanding early onslaughts in both matches to make relatively close games of it before succumbing to the visitors.

Turlock’s girls, coached by Sonja Raines, found themselves down early but battled back in a 12-6 loss that was made much more competitive thanks to five net-popping goals from their talented senior in the No. 4 bathing cap, Rebekah Groteguth.

And Raines could not say enough about Turlock’s best player afterward.

“Rebekah has played four years for us and she is such a good player because she’s worked so hard, playing on a club team in the summer, and all her hard work has really paid off.

“I was happy we played them a lot better than the last time (an 11-0 THS loss) and I liked the way Ashley Johnson sparked our defense and I thought Jennifer Mello played well in goal. She made about eight saves and a lot of them were difficult,” Raines said.

Naturally she was impressed with her team’s star, Groteguth, as well as that of her sister, sophomore Hannah Groteguth, who set her big sis up for two of her five goals.

“We started off slowly then we started going for it and got ourselves back into the match,” said Rebekah. “I love scoring on skip shots and cross-cage shots and I was able to get a few of them in today.”

“Rebekah puts in a fantastic effort every match and she and her sister Hannah play work so well together,” Raines said. “I don’t know how well they get along at home but in the water they have great chemistry.

“We’ve got a young team with only three seniors to go with four sophomores and four juniors, three of whom are playing for the first time, so considering everything we are playing pretty well.”

While Merced upped its record to a perfect 7-0 in league and 9-4 overall, Turlock fell to 2-5 in CCC play, 2-9 overall.

The nightcap was a thriller as coach Erich Richter’s boys fell behind quickly 4-1 — “I was thinking ‘Oh boy, we can’t let this one get away,” the Bulldogs’ coach said — and put on quite a comeback before finally falling 13-10. Turlock fell to 2-5 in CCC play, 2-9 overall.

“Merced’s girls are No. 1 in the league,” Richter said, “and the boys are No. 2 in our conference (7-3, 17-7 overall) so we knew it would be difficult today. Merced always seems to have a great team with a great coach and very good players.”

Merced’s boys stayed two matches behind first-place Atwater (9-0) in second place, while Turlock fell to 6-3, 16-8 overall.

Like the girls, Richter’s boys team was also sparked by a huge four performance from their own No. 4 Nick Ogden. Ogden scalded the net for four scores, two of them coming via nifty lob/hook shots that found their way into the net.

“Nick played very well, just like he always does,” Richter said of the senior who scored twice on lobbed hook shots. “He’s one of our captains and he leads the team, plus he does have a lot of different ways to score.”

Junior Jack Johnson, JJ to his teammates, “is one of my newer players and has really made his presence felt out there,” as he did Wednesday, scoring a pair of goals.

However the player of the day was defender Marsalino Ramirez, who blanketed Merced star Isaac Santana although the high-scoring senior did still manage a three-goal hat-trick.

“Marsalino was all over Isaac. He shut down one of the best goal-scorers in the area for most of the day,” said the Turlock coach who also received a goal from Ramirez. C.J. Coffee, Zack Litton and David Rocha also added goals for the Bulldogs.

Richter also praised the sturdy play of freshman goal-tender, Gabe Sleeper, who was kept wide awake early on as Merced jumped out to a 3-0 lead halfway through the seven-minute first period.

“Gabe was under a lot of pressure early but he made 18 saves and he played really well, especially considering he’s a freshman,” Richter said.

To their credit, the Bulldogs refused to bow to the pressure as Ogden got THS on the board before Merced quickly answered back. Two more Turlock goals cut the deficit to 5-3. When a Santana goal made the score 6-3, it looked as though the Bears were on their way to an easy victory.

However, in the period’s final two minutes Johnson would fire in a pair of goals and Ogden tossed in another to even the count at 6-6.

The CCC finale for Turlock will be another home match against cross-town competition Pitman for both the boys and girls teams

 Game time will be at 4 p.m. instead of the usual 3 p.m. because, Raines said.

 “We decided that a few years back. Since Turlock-Pitman is always so popular here in town, we moved the matches an hour back so that everyone could get home from work in time to watch.”

That means the first varsity match is expected to start between 5:30-6 p.m. The girls varsity match will be played first, then the boys’ match.