A Star Is Born

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.

USC Viterbi student Penelope Hocking’s combination of smarts, speed and skill has made her a rising star in NCAA women’s soccer. (Photo/John McGillen)

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 Tower. Her most enduring memory, though, occurred June 11 in a raucous stadium in Reims, France. There, Hocking watched in awe as the U.S. Women’s National Team, led by the stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, 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 2018 Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Freshman of the Year.

“I looked at them, and I knew I wanted to be 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 was named a starter and quickly became one of the nation’s best forwards, making the 2019 All-Pac-12 first team.

Hocking played perhaps her best soccer in this year’s 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

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.

Last year, 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 tournament, she begged her coaches to let her play. A week later, Hocking took the field against No. 1-ranked Florida State in excruciating pain.

“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 shootout loss to the eventual national champions.

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.

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 exults in his daughter’s soccer success. But what he’s most proud of is the person she has become. “Being a good person carries more weight than anything,” he said.

At USC, Penelope Hocking brings the same intensity to the classroom that she does to the soccer field. With a 3.5 G.P.A., she studies computer science, a reflection 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. Each day includes 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.”