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Get to know Arizona soccer’s returners: Iliana Hocking

A junior midfielder who is the daughter of an MLB player and twin sister of USC’s star scorer

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

We will be profiling Arizona soccer’s returning players before they return to campus. The previous renditions can be found here. Next up: junior Iliana Hocking.

As Penelope Hocking scored a whopping 18 goals at USC last season, her fraternal twin sister Iliana Hocking had a successful year at Arizona, only in a much different way.

The defensive-minded midfielder appeared in all 20 matches for the Wildcats, making seven starts and netting three goals, both of which were career highs.

The daughter of former Minnesota Twins infielder Denny Hocking, Iliana was a top-60 recruit out of Anaheim’s Canyon High School, and picked Arizona over Texas A&M due to its proximity to home and the overall atmosphere on campus.

Before enrolling at the UA, Hocking was a three-time all-conference honoree at Canyon, and was once named the Comanches’ “most consistent” player.

Her Arizona teammates assess her game the same way.

“I know what I’m getting with Iliana no matter what. I know she’s going hard for me,” said senior forward Jada Talley, who also was club teammates with Hocking on the SoCal Blues. “She’s not scared of anything and I really wish I had a quality like that, but that’s Ili and I love her for it. And I think she’s a great player.”

Hocking is recovering from a hip flexor injury this spring, the downside of her willingness to throw herself into tackles and headers. (She also once broke her leg in club soccer, making a way-too-ambitious run onto a through ball that caused her to collide with the keeper at full speed.)

Hocking received a cortisone shot in her psoas tendon a few months ago, but that didn’t relieve the pain, so she got a PRP injection on April 9 that proved much more effective.

Now, Hocking is running, lifting and regaining some of her soccer fitness as her team waits for the green light to return to campus to start prepping for the 2020 season.

“So [my hip] is pretty good for the most part, but I feel like I’ll need to get more injections in the future,” she said. “But it’s honestly healed way better than I expected, so I’m pretty shocked about that.”

I caught up with Hocking to talk about that, the upcoming season, her newfound love for bowling and some other things. Here’s a Q&A which has been edited for clarity. (The full interview can be watched at the bottom of this article.)

Ryan Kelapire: How would you evaluate your first two seasons?

Iliana Hocking: “I would say they went pretty well. Freshman year, I was a realist. I wasn’t expecting to start or anything. I knew I was going to have to earn my minutes, so I was happy with my freshman year minutes. I just thought it was a typical freshman year. Then I just thought I made a lot of progress that spring and I was really happy with how I did in this fall season. Starting was important to me, just to show that I have worked hard to get in that position and be considered for a spot like that. And I was really happy with my minutes. Some games I didn’t get as many minutes as I would have liked because I didn’t do that good, but I thought I had some really good games. I think that is going to set me up for success these next two seasons. I don’t know where I’m gonna play though.”

RK: What’s the next step for you as a player?

IH: “I want to be starting every game. I want it to be that I have a position. Obviously I don’t want to call it my position because anyone can take your position at any given time, but I want to have a role where I’m always looked as ‘I know Ili can start there and kill it.’ Who knows if I get coronavirus and can’t play, but whenever I’m capable, I want to start, I want to play, I want to get as many minutes as I can.”

RK: You mentioned you don’t know what position you’re going to play. What is the ideal role for you?

IH: “Definitely in the midfield. Tony (Amato) really likes me as an attacking player. He’s always talked to me about that. I really like attacking mid, but I think we don’t really have many options for holding mid and I do like holding mid. I think I know how to play that position the best, so I anticipate myself playing that. But also Tony was saying with my hip I might be playing forward just so I’m not injuring it or I can last that second game of a two-game series. But I just want to get minutes, honestly. I want to start somewhere. I will play anywhere. Not goalie.” (laughs)

RK: If the season starts on time, do you think your hip will be healed enough to play?

IH: “Yeah, I think so. Fitness-wise I still have a little ways to go because I went a few months without being cleared to run. That was pretty hard. But I think (when it comes to) soccer, I still have it. I’ve shot and everything too. I think soccer will come back naturally. I think the fitness part is where I need to really focus because not running for three months is rough, to say the least.”

RK: How have you been staying in shape during quarantine?

IH: “Right now I’m just at the stages where I’m doing a lot of longer-distance intervals. They were saying cutting puts a lot of pressure on the joint, so I’m not really cutting. I’m putting that off a little bit. My sister is always injured, so I’m like, ‘Penelope, you need to help me out. What are some things you do long-distance wise? I need some workouts.’ ... I think I’m going to start getting into cutting next week, but I’m just trying to do fast miles, take a break, try to beat that time, and 800 (meter) repeats. I haven’t done the beep test or shuttle tests yet, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m really putting that off. I don’t want to do it.” (laughs)

RK: You mentioned your sister. How would you describe your relationship with her?

IH: “Personality-wise, we’re polar opposites, but it does work. I’m louder and she’s a little more quiet and reserved, but it’s a good balance. We’re always able to talk, we are best friends, and we always have the same friend groups. Whenever we go hang out with friends, we’re always together. It’s always like ‘invite the twins.’ We’re in every group chat together. It’s funny because we don’t work out together or play soccer together, especially with my hip. I went to go shoot with her the other day and she’s a forward, so she’s doing all these turns and she’s having me do it. I was like, ‘I don’t do this.’ I felt so out of my element. I was just like, ‘Can I take some facing-the-goal shots? Why am I doing all these turns and running behind?’ It was so funny.”

RK: How much do you push each other, whether you know it or not?

IH: “Oh, I would say a lot. I’m just competitive in everything I do. Our family couldn’t even play board games when I was a kid because I would get so mad if I wasn’t winning. We wouldn’t intentionally push each other, but I know I want to be better than her, she wants to be better than me. Even in school I’m always like, ‘I got a 4.0. What did you get this semester, Penelope?’ It’s always like that, but it’s healthy.”

RK: How can you explain how different you are as players?

IH: “Yeah, it’s funny because Penelope has just always played one position her whole life. It’s always been forward. She has this natural scoring ability. She’s just been able to score, get in the back of net. When she was younger, she wasn’t that fast, so it was kinda funny. Now she’s a lot faster, so she’s able to make runs behind. I’ve always just been a defensive player. When I was younger I was always playing center back. Then I just kind of got moved around. But even in basketball I’ve always liked defense. I was always getting steals, getting rebounds. Naturally I just like being the defender and grinding in that way. And Penelope is a naturally good scorer. That’s what she’s good at. It’s just weird how it just naturally happens. It’s not like we forced it in any way.”

(When I asked Iliana last season if she ever feels overshadowed by Penelope, she said: “It’s difficult when people are like, ‘Who’s better, you or your sister?’ Then they’re like, ‘I think your sister is better.’ 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. 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.”

RK: I remember Tony said Penelope was supposed to visit Arizona, but backed out at the last moment. What’s the story with that?

IH: “She literally went on her USC visit and was like, ‘I’m going here’ and she didn’t want to go to Arizona and lead them on. I thought that was smart of her. She felt nothing was going to change her mind. It was kind of nice because [the Arizona visit] was the only visit I went on alone. I got to see what it was like not to be with her in something. Just me and my dad went, so I got to be my own person and not labeled as the twins. I was just Iliana.”

RK: What has it been like being apart from your sister these last two years?

IH: “In high school we always had some rough patches because we were literally together 24/7, sharing a room, having the same classes together, always carpooling, being on the same team. We did nothing apart. So it’s pretty emotional not to be with someone I’ve had by my side every step of the way. But it’s also good because we just see it as a factor of growing up. We’re not always gonna have each other. We’re not gonna have the same career path or anything like that. We need to be independent. But I think it’s really nice because we have our different friend groups now. We have our own college experiences. I think we both knew we wouldn’t go to the same college just because our styles of play are so different. I was never like, ‘we need to go to the same college.’ We were like, ‘I want to get away from you.’”

RK: How did you get into soccer? I think it had something to do with a lollipop, right?

IH: “I did [cheerleading] at first for some reason. I don’t know why. But my sister was playing soccer and you do little camps when you’re a kid. And after, they all lined up to get candy and I just popped in line right behind my sister. My dad’s like, ‘what do you think you’re doing? You weren’t playing.’ So that’s why I started (playing) and I just stuck with it.”

RK: You said you played basketball, so why did you stick with soccer?

IH: “I think it was more the friendships I made in soccer were much stronger. I just related more to the soccer girls than basketball. I think it’s way more aggressive than basketball. I’m able to slide, tackle, head the ball. I think there’s many fun factors of soccer and it’s super fast paced. I did play softball when I was younger, and when you’re 8 years old not very many people are athletic, so that was really frustrating. I remember my mom told me I would get a ball at shortstop and run all the way across and toss it to the first baseman because she did not know how to catch the ball. So I was not gonna stick with that.”

RK: Did your parents try to push you into one sport or did you pick one?

IH: “I remember as a kid they gave me a magazine and they’re like, ‘pick what sport you want to do.’ So that’s why I picked cheer at first. Then I did soccer. Every season was different. There’s a softball season, a basketball season, a soccer season, so we just did every one, and my mom and dad mostly coached me in those rec years. My mom played basketball in college at a [junior college], so she wanted (me) to play basketball and I really liked it. Softball didn’t really stick. My dad also played soccer growing up and his stepdad is a referee, a high up referee, so he’s always wanted us to play, so that’s kind of how that one started too.”

RK: What is the most interesting thing about having a father who played in the MLB? Obviously that’s not common.

IH: “It’s so weird growing up and having that and people wouldn’t see that as a normal dad. But it’s really cool to have someone that is super athletic and someone who understands the sport I’m playing and can even help me out practice with my shot or anything like that.”

RK: You say it felt normal, but are there any experiences you had with your dad that you now realize were really special?

IH: “I always look at pictures of me and my sister playing on the field on a Sunday with my dad. It’s cool to look at pictures, but I don’t really remember him playing. That’s the weird part. I remember like two things from my childhood—me getting run over by a bike and looking at my dad on the TV playing and pointing him out and being like, ‘Oh, that’s dad.’ That’s the only baseball memory I have of him.”

RK: I remember the first time I interviewed you, you said Torii Hunter used to carry you off the team bus when you were a toddler or something like that?

IH: “My dad would say that we would always go on the bus and they would always have all the people carrying me. Everyone had kids at the time, so we would always been in the playhouse with like Torii Hunter’s kids, LaTroy (Hawkins)’ kids. There’s a picture of all of us, and we’re all grown up now. I think that’s pretty neat to see.”

RK: And you don’t remember any of this?

IH: No. It does suck though because I was 5 years old. I should remember something and I don’t remember anything.”

RK: What’s been your favorite soccer memory?

IH: “In club, a memorable moment was winning a national championship. We were in Virginia. It was so hot and we went undefeated that season. That was just some of the best memories I’ve had with people I’m still friends and still talk too. Then for college, it’s so weird because there’s so many good ones. I would say as a collective team a great memory was definitely the UCLA game (last season). Everyone was on that game. Everyone had their best game of the season. I thought that was super fun. I don’t score that many goals, so I thought an individual proud moment was when I scored (vs.) Oregon, just because I never get that excitement really. I get more of my excitement from tackling and heading in the midfield that doesn’t really go noticed, so that was pretty cool to have my little moment.”

RK: Other than soccer what do you like to do for fun?

IH: “I love golfing and I love bowling. I’m a good bowler.”

RK: What’s your high score?

IH: “180. Before quarantine I was going with my boyfriend and his roommates a lot, and we would go like every Tuesday. It was so much fun just because I haven’t bowled in a while. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m pretty good at this.’ They would play like five rounds and my arm would be dead. My average score is like 165.”

RK: Is bowling another thing you did as a kid?

IH: “No. I’d also get mad when I wasn’t winning in bowling so my family didn’t go that much.” (laughs).

RK: It says in your bio that you’re pursuing a degree in public health with the goal of becoming a nurse. Is that accurate?

IH: “Yeah, now I’m doing a psych minor also. I really want to do something in healthcare, whether that be a family physician or a registered nurse or a [physician’s assistant]. I need to go talk to a career coach and really narrow this down, but I just know I want to work in healthcare because I just want to make a difference in that sense. And that makes sense since I’ve always been successful in those type of classes.”

RK: What’s your outlook on the 2020 season?

IH: “Half the girls are new players, so it’s gonna be interesting to see how their styles fit in with the team. You have to adapt around all the new girls as well. You can’t just say the returners were good at this, we’re gonna stick with this. (Assistant coach) Sandy (Davison) is still fairly new too, so it’s gonna be kind of like a new staff, so it’s also gonna be weird getting to know everyone without having that much contact. But I think our team is very used to adversity. My coach growing up always told us, ‘adversity, you gotta get used to it.’ So I’ve kind of always grown up that way. It’s like coronavirus, bummer, but we’re gonna have to use this to our advantage. We’re gonna have to stay healthy and beat teams that way too. The healthy teams are gonna survive this.”

RK: Now one of the older players on the team, how do you plan to help the freshmen fit in?

IH: “Just be there and support them. I just know that in previous years some of the older players felt like there was a divide between classes. Working together to blend those lines is going to be hard. I just don’t think we’re going to be able to hang out with teammates outside of soccer (because of the coronavirus), but we have to try our best to reach out to the girls and be like, ‘Hey, are you good with everything that’s going on? You can always talk to me.’ Just things like that. But in spring we all got really close, the 14 of us (returners), and we all made it a key thing that we need to make the freshmen feel welcomed. We want everyone to come in and be successful. We want to have a good team and the best way to do that is for everyone to have a good connection.”