Jason Durbin kept the bodies rotating in and out, moving pieces around the field like orange and black checkers, searching for rhythm and consistency.
Two in. Two out.
You, grab some water and stay loose. You, give me five more minutes.
"C'mon, Merced," the first-year coach bellowed out from his sideline seat, gripping a notebook in his hand. "Wake up. Let's go."
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Two years after jolting the soccer community with an improbable Sac-Joaquin Section championship and jumping into the upper crust of Valley prep soccer teams, Merced is, well...
Searching for a rhythm.
Stuck in a slumbery state.
Gone are most of the marquee names that delivered a Division-I soccer title and back-to-back Central California Conference crowns. In their place have stepped a new coach and cast, younger, smaller and less experienced.
Durbin took over for Bart McAfee, who compiled a 39-5-6 record in his final two seasons and developed an aura of intimidation around the program.
That aura, Durbin said, duped many of his first-year players and helped contribute to a lackluster start to Central California Conference play.
"We're just looking for consistency," he said. "The last two years Merced has been outstanding and excellent, and if you ask everyone ... everyone has been scared of them. These guys (his current team) think everyone should be scared of them, too.
"We've lost four times. No one should be scared of us.
"We have the talent. Talent isn't the problem. The problem is a matter of showing up, putting on that uniform and playing the game. I know when I played and I put on the uniform I was ready to play, no matter who I was playing against."
The rebuild has left Merced unpredictable and wildly inconsistent as it tries to establish a new identity.
During stretches, Merced moves the ball crisply about the field, finding the open player and space, running the defense and punishing goalies. And then without warning, it loses hold of the groove, sending ill-advised long balls, turning the ball over and scrambling to play defense.
Nothing typifies its helter-skelter play than its ongoing season series with Buhach Colony. Merced won the first two meetings with its CCC rival handily, outscoring Buhach Colony 9-2 during preseason meetings.
Buhach Colony answered back during the first round of conference play with a 3-0 victory.
On Tuesday, the two drew even, in a game that featured several scoring chances but not a single goal.
Final score: 0-0.
Merced goalie Andrew Jaurique had seven saves, including a point-blank stop Roberto Torres in the 54th minute. Buhach Colony goalie Christian Gonzalez (six saves) was just as sharp, sprawling to bat away three second-half shots by Octavio Murillo.
Each side collected a point for the tie, but cringed at the thought of leaving two valuable points on the field.
The CCC will send three teams to the playoffs this season, and at the midway point, three -- Golden Valley (6-1-1 CCC), Buhach Colony (3-1-4) and Turlock (3-1-4) -- have slowly separated themselves as the frontrunners.
Despite its struggles in conference play, Merced (3-4-1) remains on the bubble in fourth, clinging to thinning hopes.
For Buhach Colony head coach Josh Newton, Tuesday's match was a chance to stagger the defending champs.
"A point is a point," said Newton, whose club has tied its last three opponents.
"I just hope we don't look back and think we left two points out here."
Durbin used the moments after the game to rally his team.
There's still time, he said.
"It's wide open," he added. "Nobody has pulled away. We'll see these guys one more time. This league is competitive, so you never know."
Golden Valley 5, Pitman 1
Mike Gomez came off the bench in the 20th minute and promptly turned the match in Golden Valley's favor.
Gomez scored once and assisted on two others as confernce-leader Golden Valley picked up its sixth win in eight conference games. Matt Hubbard had two goals, bringing his total to nine -- tops in the conference.
James Burns is regional sports content editor of the Merced Sun-Star and Modesto Bee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.