MERCED — Jimmy Brewer knows all too well how precarious holding the top spot in the Central California Conference soccer standings can be.
His Atwater Falcons ascended to first place last week just to have consecutive losses knock them from their perch and temporarily out of the playoff picture.
The Atwater defense took the bulk of the blame. The Falcons were outscored 9-3 in the two losses to Golden Valley and Turlock.
Brewer said it was the worst marking he'd seen from his team all season.
A heated practice on Tuesday and a chance to get right back in the title hunt was enough to right the ship. The Falcon defense answered the challenge of a potent Merced attack and shuffled up the league standings one more time with a 4-2 road win on Wednesday afternoon.
"You look at the score and you have no idea how close this game was," said Atwater midfielder Manuel Villegas, who had two assists. "It was intense. Everybody is fighting for the playoffs and for the title, so every game is going to be a battle."
Six points separate the top five teams in the conference with two games to play.
Merced (5-4-4 CCC) became the latest team to be unceremoniously removed from the top spot. Golden Valley's 1-0 victory over Turlock moves them to the top of the table with 21 points.
Atwater (5-3-5) is in second with 20, Merced third with 19, Turlock fourth with 18 and Pitman is still hanging around with 15.
Turlock has an extra game that will be made up with Buhach Colony on Friday. The top three teams make the Division 1 playoffs.
Expect every game left to have that playoff feel; Wednesday's contest certainly did.
Atwater came out the aggressor, striking for a pair of goals in the first 16 minutes.
Some excellent one-touch passing set up the first goal as Villegas swung in a ball from the right wing. The senior half-volleyed a pass over the Bear defense and into the sprinting path of Ben Belmonte.
Belmonte deftly controlled the ball around a defender with his first touch and then fired to the far post just four minutes in.
The Merced defense was caught sleeping on the second goal, failing to push out of its own box on a failed clearance.
Francisco Vargas curled in a cross and Adalberto Guzman flicked in an easy header from inside the 6-yard box.
Jonathan Trillo almost made it 3-0, rattling a header off of the crossbar in the 30th minute.
The close call seemed to wake Merced, as the Bears closed the half with a flurry.
Goalkeeper Efrain Ulloa (four saves) kept Merced at bay for a while, but was helpless in the 40th minute when a deflected corner kick fell to Jovan Prado.
The Merced senior fired a shot off a couple players, and it deflected off of the right post and in to make it 2-1 at halftime.
Intermission did little to slow the Bears as they opened the second-half with another 10-minute flurry.
William Gomez almost equalized just a minute into the second half, but had his far-post header hit the crossbar.
A second Merced goal seemed inevitable, but Atwater slowly began evening out the play again.
"We were definitely in trouble for a little while," Brewer said. "But we weathered that storm and were able to calm things back down.
"We've been on the receiving end of having a lot of possession and creating chances, just to be beaten by a counter. So it was nice to be the team with a lead and kind of absorb their best shot before answering."
Guzman put the game out of reach in the 62nd minute when Villegas fed him a perfectly paced through ball.
Merced goalkeeper Evan Quevas got a diving hand on the shot, but couldn't keep it out.
Trillo made it 4-1 seven minutes later when he picked the pocket of a Merced defender and beat Quevas in another one-on-one.
Merced tacked on a late Atwater own goal to make it 4-2.
"Our whole approach this season has been lackadaisical," Merced coach Aaron Ruiz said. "You have to show up to the field prepared. You can't get there late or show up to school or class late.
"It all plays into something. I'm trying to teach these kids that, not only in soccer, but in life.
"If we can't figure it out, we may be one of the teams staying home for the playoffs."