MODESTO -- Everything changed for the Modesto High boys soccer team in a minute's span Tuesday.
In the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 playoffs, the Panthers outshot visiting Merced all evening, but had produced little to trouble goalkeeper Asad Sohail through the first 63 minutes.
All that shifted when Christian Robles found some space down the right wing, setting off a clash that led to the Bears' 1-0 victory and a devastating end to Modesto's season.
Robles rolled a cross through Merced's six-yard box and into the path of a couple charging Panthers. What should have been an easy tap-in was shanked, allowing Sohail to make a diving stop.
Sohail couldn't control the rebound, however, and Panthers striker Carlos Garcia appeared to be in good position to punch it home.
Sohail somehow managed to keep the ball out of the box while still lying on the ground and the bulk of both teams converged on him, resulting in a scrum.
Several pushes were exchanged, and when the referee calmed things down, Merced's Ricky Aguilera and Modesto's Garcia were shown red cards.
That took out the Panthers' top goal scorer, who had been their most dangerous player of the night.
It was a shot to the gut that Modesto never recovered from and the Bears delivered the knockout blow 14 minutes later with a Meng Moua goal. That was how No. 12 Merced (12-7-8) upset the No. 5 Panthers (16-6-4) at Downey High, advancing to the quarterfinals Thursday at Armijo.
"That definitely hurt," Modesto coach Matt Mendes said. "To come that close to scoring and then to have one of our best players sent off like that, it left us reeling a little bit. We had our share of chances, but they were the team to cash one in."
The Modesto defense had proven stout all evening, only allowing Merced a handful of clear-cut chances. The Panthers were strong, fast and in the hip pocket of the Bears' skill players for most of the evening.
But Merced kept probing and finally found the little bit of space it needed in the 78th minute, carving up Modesto's defense like a Halloween jack-o'-lantern with four quick touches.
Jovan Prado got the sequence started, receiving the ball in the middle of the field. He quickly shot a curling pass into the path of a sprinting William Gomez inside the Modesto 18-yard box.
Gomez then one-timed a cross through the six-yard box where Moua pounced with a sliding finish.
"It's great playing with these guys so long that we know exactly where we'll be on a play like that," said Moua, whose game-winning goal in the final minutes last week got Merced into the playoffs. "That goal made me so happy.
"We knew at halftime that they were going to keep coming at us, and we needed to just keep our cool and keep pressing. We got it done."
Modesto finished with a 13-11 shot advantage and a 7-4 edge in shots on goal, but couldn't produce an answer in the last few minutes as the emotions of both teams boiled over in the second half.
The red cards were just two in a flurry of cards issued in the second half after the referee handed out none in a very physical opening 40 minutes.
Five yellow cards were dished out and four reds, with two players from each team being sent off.