Meng Moua turned to celebrate and was immediately mobbed.
The entire Merced High team, including the bench which spilled out onto the field, met the senior midfielder along the left sideline.
The raucous celebration earned the Bears a yellow card, but it's one that head coach Aaron Ruiz won't mind so much.
Moua's goal in the 76th minute provided one final twist to an emotional afternoon as Merced and Golden Valley duked it out with the playoffs and a possible Central California Conference title on the line.
It gave the Bears two goals in a wild four-minute span as they came from behind for a 3-2 victory on their home field.
"We knew we still had a lot of life," said Moua. "We just kept fighting.
"I never gave up on the play and finally was able to get a shot through. Seeing my team running towards (me) after the goal made me about as happy as I can remember."
The win assures Merced (6-4-5 CCC) a spot in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 playoffs with 23 points. A few hours later, Atwater had a similar celebration at Falcon Field.
The Falcons (6-4-5) staged a second-half comeback of their own, with Manuel Villegas converting a penalty kick and Tito Garibay pouncing on a rebound inside the Buhach Colony 18-yard box in the 73rd minute.
Atwater's 2-1 win also gave them 23 points, while and Turlock's 2-1 win over Pitman made them the league champs with 25 points. The Falcon win eliminated GV (6-5-4) from the playoffs.
Early on, it looked as if it would be Golden Valley's day as the Cougars took a 2-1 lead behind a pair of Esten Schroeder goals. They still had that lead going into the final 10 minutes of the game.
The field started to tilt toward the Cougars' goal in the 70th minute, but sophomore goalkeeper Toby Osborne (11 saves) turned away all comers.
Merced finally equalized in the 74th minute.
Jovan Prado appeared to be in trouble when he tried to beat a pair of defenders down in the left corner. The striker got past his markers and then managed to tip-toe along the touch line to keep the ball in play.
Prado laid a cross back for Carlos Manzo, who toe-poked home the tying goal from just outside the GV 6-yard box.
Moua put Merced in front two minutes later.
He collected a ball in the middle of the field and then accelerated through the Cougar defense.
Moua cut hard to the left and fired a strike to the post past a diving Osborne.
"Our guys knew everything was on the line, and they just kept fighting until the end," Ruiz said. "We had our core group of guys step up and take control of the game.
"All you can ask is you give yourselves a chance to win and our guys did that."
Merced got the ideal start, jumping on the board first in the 30th minute.
A failed clearance by the GV defense handed Manzo the ball in a dangerous spot. He fed a streaking William Gomez, who hammered home the opening goal.
The Bears had the better run of play in the opening 40 minutes, but GV flipped the game on its head with a flurry in the last 5 minutes.
Schroeder leveled things when he headed in a long throw in from Brandon Adame in the 36th minute. The Cougars' sparkplug was at it again two minutes later, chasing down a ball from Adame on the right wing.
Schroeder accelerated past the defender and rocketed a shot past goalkeeper Asad Sohail (seven saves).
"You have to give Merced credit," said GV coach Lee Shaw. "They kept coming at us, and they got the breaks with a couple goals at the end."