A battle between Central California Conference title contenders came down to this: a lucky bounce.
The Turlock girls soccer team received a gift from Merced's bumpy, uneven surface early in the first half, surging out to a quick 1-0 lead.
Merced answered back, knotting the game at 1-all, but failed to get the win it so desperately wanted against the three-time defending conference champions.
Merced-Turlock, Part I, proved to be nothing more than a stalemate on Monday afternoon, 1-1.
"We didn't play our game. It's so frustrating," Merced coach Brooke Wilson vented afterwards.
"It's always a big game when it's Turlock. For the last couple of years, it's been them and us. We've been in their shadows, so to speak.
"I think we have the talent this year to do it and we didn't put it together."
Neither team was particularly sharp.
Both sides struggled to adjust to the elements in the first half.
Turlock (2-0-1 CCC, 9-0-1) lifted balls into the air, only to see them die in the headwind.
Merced (2-0-1, 7-1-2), playing with the breeze at its back, had most of its through balls and clearances race away from forwards Tina Benson and Katalina McKee.
"It can be a big factor," Merced sophomore Alexa Lawler said. "It plays a big role when you're trying to clear balls out. It helps when it's on your side, but it goes both ways."
Turlock struck first in the 10th minute on an assist from Mother Nature.
Shelby McClain booted a seemingly harmless ball into the Merced 18-yard box, where goalie Stephanie Isenberg (five saves) waited to collect it off the bounce.
Then things got squirrely.
The bumpy surface redirected the ball on goal, carrying it over Isenberg's head and off the crossbar.
Forward Sara Latham raced onto the ball, pushing it into the back of an open net to make it 1-0.
"Unlucky," Turlock coach Dennis Bishop said along the sideline, referring to Merced's bad break on the play.
Merced wasn't down for long, notching the equalizer 5 minutes later.
Camille McKee threaded a long cross into the box for Benson, who slipped her shot by Turlock goalie Maecie Ireland (two saves).
The reigning Sun-Star player of the year took advantage of Turlock's top defender and captain, sweeper Cassidy Costa, not being on the field.
Costa was tagged with a yellow card in the 13th minute and could only watch Benson ripple the back of the net.
Those were the lone highlights for each offense. The defenses didn't give away much space or time.
Lawler matched Costa's ability to control the back line. The physical sweeper used her shoulder and leg stabs to knock Turlock forwards off the ball and their lines.
"She's a savage back there. She's one of our quietest players -- you never hear her talk -- but she's our toughest," Wilson said. "So smart, so calm. And she doesn't panic back there.
"We didn't play our game today. A lot of balls in the air. Scrambling. But thank God we had her back there. I wish I could clone her."
James Burns is managing editor/sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.
TURLOCK -- Goals: Sara Latham 1; Saves: Maecie Ireland 2, Andrea Rosas 1.
MERCED -- Goals: Tina Benson 1; Assists: Camille McKee 1; Saves: Stephanie Isenberg 5
Records: Turlock 9-0-1, 2-0-1 CCC; Merced 7-1-2, 2-0-1 CCC.
Halftime score: 1-1.