A Star Is Born

| January 29, 2020

Penelope Hocking, the Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Freshman of the Year in 2018 and a sophomore majoring in computer science, shines on the pitch and in the classroom.

As a freshman, Penelope Hocking led the conference with 14 goals, earning All-Pac-12 second team honors. As a sophomore, she became a starter and quickly became one nation’s best forwards, making the All-Pac-12 First Team. (Photo/Andy Mead)

As a freshman, Penelope Hocking led the conference with 14 goals, earning All-Pac-12 second team honors. As a sophomore, she became a starter and quickly became one nation’s best forwards, making the All-Pac-12 First Team. (Photo/Andy Mead)

In the summer of 2019, Penelope Hocking took a dream trip to Europe with her teammates on the USC women’s soccer team.

The 19-year-old USC Viterbi computer science major had the time of her life, visiting the Tower of London, London Bridge and the Eiffel Tour. Her most enduring memory, though, occurred June 11 in a raucous stadium in Reims, France. There, Hocking watched in awe as American women soccer stars Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and others crushed Thailand 13-0 on their way to winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Seeing the best soccer players in the world inspired the Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Freshman of the Year.

“I looked at them, and I knew I wanted to there in the future,” said Hocking, whom friends call “P” and who counts Cristiano Ronaldo and Abby Wambach among her heroes. “That’s my goal: I want to play for my country at the most elite level.”

She’s well on her way.

An elite player

As a freshman, the scrappy Hocking led the conference with 14 goals, earning All-Pac-12 second team honors. As a sophomore, she became a starter and quickly became one nation’s best forwards, making the All-Pac-12 First Team.

Hocking played perhaps her best soccer in the 2019 NCAA tournament. In the opening round against Cal State Fullerton, she scored not one, not two, not three, but four goals in USC’s 5-1 victory. She also had an assist. In the process, Hocking set a school record for most goals in a women’s postseason soccer game. She scored two more goals in the Trojans next three games, including one in the team’s heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to the University of North Carolina.

“I was just at the right place at the right time and happened to put the ball into the net,” said the self-effacing Hocking of her scoring spree.

USC women’s soccer coach, Keidane McAlpine, offers a different explanation for Hocking’s on-field prowess. “Her combination of speed, skill and strength, coupled with her tenacity and ability to finish, make her extremely valuable,” he said. “I think Penelope has the potential to be on the U.S. Women’s National team for sure.”

A fiery competitor

Penelope Hocking (Photo/John McGillen)

Penelope Hocking (Photo/John McGillen)

Like hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Hocking anticipates how the game will unfold and moves into position to capitalize on that. She possesses more than just raw talent, though. Much more. Hocking’s fiery competitiveness and unrivaled work ethic have allowed her to become a singular talent.

In 2018, Hocking badly sprained her ankle against Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Instead of sitting out the rest of the competition, she begged her coaches to let her play. A week later, Hocking took the field against No. 1 ranked Florida State in excruciating pain. No way would she let down her teammates.

“It was do or die, and I wasn’t going to dwell on the stupid injury,” said Hocking, who netted USC’s sole goal in the team’s shoot-out loss to the eventual national champions. “You have to overcome adversity, whether a bad game or bad ankle. You have to bounce back and look forward.”

Hocking, who grew up in Anaheim, comes from a family of athletes. Her father, Denny Hocking, played major league baseball for 13 years as a utility infielder, mostly with the Minnesota Twins. Her mother, Venetta Hocking, was a shooting guard at Cypress College. Hocking’s twin sister, Iliana, plays soccer at the University of Arizona. Her younger brother, Jarrod, plays baseball at Servite High School in Orange County.

As teenagers, Penelope and Iliana Hocking helped lead their club team, So Cal Blues, to the 2015 national title. That doesn’t mean the sisters always played nicely with one another. Fueled with a laser-focus desire to win, they often road home in silence together in the back of their parents’ car, annoyed with one another for perceived on-field lapses.

Hocking fell in love with soccer at 12. She practiced whenever possible, sometimes spending hours dribbling the ball alone or kicking it against a wall. Even now, Hocking works harder than almost anyone.

“Not only does she have some God-given talent that is hard to find in many players, but she is not afraid to work for what she wants and strive to get better every day,” said USC teammate Tara McKeown, the 2019 Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Forward of the Year. “Her work ethic on the field makes the people around her better, especially me.”

A model student-athlete

Denny Hocking said he exults in his daughter’s soccer success. However, he feels more pride in the woman she has become. “Being a good person carries more weight than anything,” he said.

Or as Penelope Hocking said: “My parents instilled in me to be the best person, student and soccer player I could be – in that order.”

USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, an ardent soccer fan and a regular player in an over-50 soccer league, said he sees a connection between the sport and engineering; both require mental toughness and concentration. “We are elated to have Penelope in our computer science program and look forward to her thriving.”

At USC, Hocking brings the same intensity to the classroom as she does to the soccer field. She has a 3.5 G.P.A., studying computer science because of her love of technology and problem solving. One day, she hopes to work in cybersecurity.

For now, Hocking works hard to juggle athletics and academics successfully. That includes daily study time from  5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Add lectures, office hours, practice, games and film sessions to the mix, and Hocking has little if any downtime.

That’s just fine with her

“I fell in love with the campus from the moment I saw it,” Hocking said. “I wanted good academics and a good soccer program, and USC has both. It was a really easy choice to come here.”

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