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Iliana Hocking poised for bigger role at Arizona as twin sister stars at USC

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

If you are looking to settle the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate, look no further than the Hocking sisters.

There is Penelope, a super-skilled forward who regularly fills up the stat sheet. Goals, assists, shots, you name it.

Then there is Iliana, her fraternal twin who can play virtually every position (even goalkeeper), but especially excels in the midfield because of her heading, tackling and overall grittiness.

Scoring? Eh, that’s her sister’s thing.

“From a young age, she was a little chubbier, so she couldn’t really run that much,” Iliana laughed. “I think they just stuck her up at forward and it just stuck with her.”

Penelope has blossomed at that position, becoming one of the top players in her age group. The USC standout played for the Under-20 U.S. Women’s National Team, and last season was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year after leading the conference in scoring (14 goals).

Meanwhile, Iliana is still trying to make a name for herself at Arizona as she enters her sophomore season. She came off the bench in 2018, and though she was effective when she played, her minutes usually came in spurts.

She played roughly 500 minutes over 20 matches—about 25 minutes per match—while notching 12 shots, three assists and an untracked (but probably large) number of tackles and balls won.

No goals, though.

“Genetics is a mad science, right?” joked Arizona coach Tony Amato. “They were raised in the same environment, so you just gotta go to how the genes came together and that’s how it goes sometimes. I think Ili is really good too.”

While Penelope is the more accomplished player to this point, Iliana is only scratching the surface of what she can become.

For one, she is poised to have a bigger role this season. Kennedy Kieneker, who did a lot of the same things Iliana does, graduated and Amato has pegged Iliana as the player who can step in and help fill that void in the midfield.

She expects to take on some playmaking duties too.

Beyond that, Iliana is more comfortable heading into her sophomore season—and not just for the usual, she’s-a-year-older reasons.

It was less than three years ago when Iliana, then a member of the SoCal Blues, shattered her tibia and fibula. The leg injury ended her penultimate club season early and caused her to miss half of her final year of club soccer.

Even then, she was playing out of position and, at times, with a limp. Heading to Arizona in that kind of shape made her anxious at the start of her freshman season. It took some time to settle in.

“I was nervous because I just played club for half a season, and I was playing center forward, which wasn’t very ideal for what I was playing now,” Iliana said. “But playing a year, it’s better because I’m up to the speed of play and definitely know what the Pac-12 game is like, so [this year] is gonna be fun.”

Ironically, Iliana sustained the injury trying to convert a rare scoring opportunity. UCLA’s Ashley Sanchez, then a member of the Blues, played a through ball to Iliana, who sprinted after it, unaware that the goalkeeper had bolted off her line to break it up.

The two collided at full speed.

“So I’m looking at the ball, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going to get it’ and I did not see the keeper at all,” Hocking said. “And she is at the top of the 18 and she comes in, we both go for it, but I just got the worst end because my right foot was closest to her and it was planted. So all my weight was on that foot. And then her going through it makes it easier to break it. I usually get up right away but that time I didn’t.”

UA forward Jada Talley, also on that Blues team, cringes when she thinks about that play.

“The cleat just hit perfect on her shin and it just broke,” she grimaced. “She was screaming but we were like, ‘maybe it’s just a roll or something.’ [Penelope] ran over there and [Iliana] was yelling at our coach, Randy, ‘it’s broke! it’s broke!’ That’s when everyone got quiet. Randy went over there and he’s like, ‘call 911.’”

Iliana was devastated at the time because it ended her season, and nine months of arduous rehab followed, six of which involved being unable to run.

Now? She has grown from the injury and even laughs about it, and how her team was up by several goals when it happened.

What was she thinking?

“When I hurt myself, I was like ‘I’m so dumb,’” she said. “We were winning by so much. It wasn’t even worth it.”

But it’s not in Hocking’s nature to let up. She is a relentless competitor, which she says can probably be traced to genetics. Her father Denny played in the MLB for 13 seasons. Her mother Venetta played basketball at Cypress College.

And having a twin sister that is just as driven as she is? Only a plus.

“No matter what she does, that girl is 100 percent into everything,” Talley said of Iliana. “It’s 100 miles per hour every single play. It doesn’t matter what the temperature is, who we’re playing. She doesn’t care. And when she plays like that, it makes me want to play like that.”

That aggression is partly why Iliana is so skilled with her head, even though she is only 5-foot-4, about five inches shorter than Kieneker. It also helps that Iliana used to play basketball, which taught her how to time her leaps.

“A lot of that has to do with the mentality to go win the ball, the toughness to go do it, and the athletic ability to jump,” Amato said. “So we don’t think we’ll miss a beat in the air (with Iliana).”

No matter how Iliana’s career unfolds, it’s doubtful that she will ever reel in the kind of accolades her sister does. It’s just the nature of the sport. Goal scorers get the spotlight.

Some might see that disparity and think it could weigh on Iliana, make her feel inferior to her sister.

But rarely is that a problem. She is comfortable with who she is.

“It’s difficult when people are like, ‘Who’s better, you or your sister?’ Then they’re like, ‘I think your sister is better,’” Iliana said. “But I don’t care. I’m always going to be supportive of her. I think it’s super exciting watching her fulfill her dreams and everything.

“And I think I would see it differently if we were both forwards and she was getting all this (attention). But just because we play such different positions and are such different styles of players, I don’t really get too down on myself. I just focus on what I’m good at, then I support her along the way.”