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Two athletes who didn't receive baseball scholarships from the University of Arizona during high school were instrumental in the Wildcats coming within one pitch of winning the College World Series championship for the second time in five years in Omaha, Nebraska.
Valencia High graduate Jared Oliva and former West Ranch and College of the Canyons standout JC Cloney took different paths to joining the Arizona roster, but they became two of the central figures during a postseason run that saw the Wildcats win six elimination contests before a 4-3 loss June 30 in the deciding game in the best-of-three championship series against Coastal Carolina.
Perhaps it was only fitting that two of Arizona's unsung heroes produced some of their defining World Series moments in the same game June 22 in a 3-0 victory against UC Santa Barbara.
Oliva hit a two-run home run in the third inning and Cloney pitched seven innings, allowing five hits and striking out two to help Arizona rebound from a 1-0 loss June 20 to Oklahoma State.
"We're not in the College World Series without JC. We're not in the NCAA tournament without him," Arizona coach Jay Johnson said. "The quality wins that he has had this year have been special and I don't think we've had a performance that good all year. His character is off the charts."
Cloney followed his outing against UC Santa Barbara with a four-hitter in a 3-0 victory June 27 against Coastal Carolina in the first game of the championship series, striking out six in a complete-game performance to conclude the season 8-4 with a 2.45 ERA.
"It was a special performance. That's an unbelievable offensive team that did not get many good swings off on him. It was very impressive. That's about as good as it gets," Johnson said. "I think he wanted to kill me against Santa Barbara when I took him out and he hadn't allowed any runs. The number-one thing with him is his mental disposition and his ability to block out everything else going on around him, focusing on getting a good visual of the target and attacking the mitt. He can do that with three or four pitches."
Cloney, a junior left-hander, pitched 3 2/3 innings, allowing seven hits and six earned runs in a 10-3 loss June 5 to Louisiana-Lafayette, but Arizona responded with six consecutive wins to return to the World Series, including a sweep of host Mississippi State in the Super Regionals.
"I moved past Lafayette the day after, especially once we won it and we were headed to Starkville. I didn't get to pitch there, but winning the first two was the probably best thing we've done all year," Cloney said. "If I don't have to pitch and we win the first two, then I'm real happy about that."
Cloney produced the most impressive season in West Ranch history in 2012, recording 100 strikeouts and 18 walks, with a 1.84 ERA in 72 1/3 innings, leading the Wildcats to the CIF-Southern Section Division I semifinals.
Despite suffering a fractured elbow during his freshman year at Long Beach State and not having his scholarship renewed, Cloney didn't let that hinder his progress in 2014 at College of the Canyons. He went 7-4 with a 2.40 ERA and was selected Western State Conference Pitcher of the Year before transferring to Arizona, where he was motivated to make history again with the Wildcats.
"Coach Johnson has been talking about how the Super Bowl is [every game] all year. For me, it's just come out and give my best effort and at the end of the day, the results will set themselves," Cloney said.
Oliva, who walked on to the Arizona team before earning a starting position in center field, collected seven hits and eight RBIs in eight World Series games, including a two-run single in the sixth inning in the final game against Coastal Carolina. But hitting a home run in prestigious TD Ameritrade Park was a special highlight for the redshirt sophomore.
"My first at-bat I saw his fastball good and I was on time. I flew out to right, but I knew I was ready and I got my timing down and I was just sitting on one location, one pitch and sure enough he gave it to me and I just tried to put a good swing on it," Oliva said. Oliva, who suffered a broken wrist as a high school freshman and played sparingly as a sophomore and junior before hitting .325 with 15 runs and 11 stolen bases as a senior at Valencia, developed into the best all-around athlete on the Wildcats' roster. Oliva started 38 games last year in Arizona, hitting .272 with 22 runs and 20 RBIs. "This is a guy that really wants to be successful. I'm very proud of him and all of our guys for what they've accomplished," Johnson said.