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Iliana Hocking loving new role, ready to rematch sister when Arizona soccer visits USC at the Coliseum

Photos courtesy of USC and Arizona Athletics

When USC hosts Arizona soccer on Friday, it will mark the third time the Hocking sisters have battled on a Pac-12 stage. Penelope’s Trojans have gotten the best of Iliana’s Wildcats so far, claiming a victory in each of the past two seasons.

And though they are always excited to see each other and talk a little trash, those games haven’t been as heated as you might think.

“We haven’t really come in contact a lot,” Penelope said. “She’s played more up the field, she’s played more attacking. I think we had one tackle against each other last year. That was pretty weird. But this year she will be playing more of the six and I’m a forward so I’m probably gonna face her a lot.”

The fraternal twins are key players for their respective squads. Penelope has four goals this season, tied for sixth-most in the Pac-12. Last year, she finished second in the conference in scoring (18 goals) after leading it in 2018 as the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

It’s been more of a gradual rise for Iliana at Arizona. She was a bench player as a freshman, an occasional starter as a sophomore, and now starts every game as a junior. She is playing defensive midfield now and loving it. It’s where she played in club and where she’s most comfortable on the field.

“I feel like I know the strategy and positioning behind it,” she said. “I like being able to see most of the field in front of me. Sometimes when I’m attacking mid, I have to play with my back to the goal or on the end line, and it’s uncomfortable. I’m just more comfortable in the middle of the field. ... Of course I always look at film and be like, ‘I need to improve on this, this and this,’ but hopefully two more years I can still do all those things.”

Iliana has emerged as a leader, too. Freshmen make up more than half of Arizona’s roster, making her one of the most experienced players on the team. She has played an active role in getting the newcomers up to speed, using her voice to guide them in practices and games.

“Having people that are able to direct them will really help him in the future because I know when I went in as a freshman, sometimes you’re lost,” she said. “It’s directing whatever’s in front of me. If it’s a throw in, getting people in defensive shape or telling people when to step, when to go. When someone’s open they may not be able to see it.”

Penelope watches every Arizona game and loves how her sister is developing, how she’s playing with so much confidence.

“I see her improve every game and she’s gotten so much better at so many different things,” she said. “Playing more of an attacking role freshman and sophomore year, I think her soccer IQ has improved a lot and I think she sees the field way better than she saw it when we were in club and high school.”

Of course, some things haven’t changed. Iliana is still a vicious tackler and has a penchant for winning balls in the air even though she’s only 5-foot-4. She scored a header in the win over NAU on Feb. 20, her lone goal of the season and fourth of her career.

“Her vertical is really good...and she’s just such a competitive player,” Penelope said. “She’s always been able to read the ball very well in the air. She’s a really big threat on corners. I think we’d be making a mistake if we didn’t man-mark her.”

Iliana epitomizes the toughness that Arizona soccer prides itself on. She might seem gentle off the field but she’s a totally different beast on it. UA forward Jill Aguilera said she is the last player you want to pick a fight with.

Penelope plays with the same passion. They derived it from each other. While they starred for the same club and high school soccer teams as kids in Anaheim, they competed in virtually everything else. In sixth grade, they were captains in P.E. and led their teams against each other in different sports. Unlike in college, Iliana won every time.

“I do not want to lose and I don’t take crap from anyone,” she said. “If you push me around, you better expect me to come back. I’m just not going to be pushed over.”

Iliana’s drive even surprises herself sometimes. She figured this season would be tough for her because she has been dealing with a nagging hip injury for over a year now. It’s actually gone a lot better than expected. Once the games start, the adrenaline kicks in and the pain subsides.

For a while, anyway.

“The next day it just always feels like I got hit by a train,” she said.

While Penelope’s impact can be measured in goals, shots and assists, Iliana evaluates her game by tracking how many headers she wins, how many passes she cuts, and even how well she sleeps.

If she gets a good night sleep, then she didn’t play her best.

“Because when my body hurts I know that I’m on it,” she said.

Iliana has pushed herself to play the full 90 minutes four times this season, something she had never done in an Arizona uniform before. Even when the Wildcats have played twice in one weekend she’s shouldered a heavy workload. She played 90 minutes against Oregon State on a Friday then 85 against Oregon on a Sunday. Between games she was basically living in the training room. Whatever it takes.

“She’s always had that mentality of, ‘I’ll just play through it,’” Penelope said. “She has a super high pain tolerance and up until her senior year of high school, she’d never gotten hurt. She would be in these big collisions and the other girl would walk out with a bloody nose and Iliana was like, ‘oh I’m fine.’

“When she broke her tibia, fibula senior year (of high school), she didn’t even cry, so I was like, okay, that kind of makes sense because she’s such a mentally strong person and I know she’ll do anything to be out on the field and do anything for her team, which is just very admirable and I definitely look up to her for that.”

The Hockings have actually grown closer since they went separate ways for college. They cherish their time together more and rarely argue the way they did when they were joined at the hip as kids. And they still talk every day, often about their games or practices. “Venting” as Iliana half-jokingly calls it.

While Penelope could brag that she’s one of the most accomplished forwards in the country and even got a chance to play for the U.S. national team at the 2018 U20 World Cup in France, they don’t like to compare each other as players.

They play different positions and, now more than ever, are different people.

“I’ve never been jealous of her whatsoever,” Iliana said. “Of course, I’d love to be in her situation because it’s cool to be able to travel and all of that, but I’m just so happy for her. And right now I have a bigger role on my team, so it just brings me a lot of confidence coming into this season and next season.”

What’s at stake Friday? The Hockings weigh in

For Arizona...

The Wildcats (6-3, 1-3) are trying to maintain their momentum after beating No. 16 ASU at home last Friday. While Arizona is never considered the favorite against USC—especially on the road—a win or draw would go a long way toward keeping them in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Iliana’s take: “I’m excited for it because I feel like our team and their team so far in the Pac-12 haven’t been off to the best starts they’ve ever been at. So I feel like we do have a lot of confidence going into the game just because I feel like we did really well as a team in the ASU game and really executed the game plan. Also since it’s one game, everyone’s just gonna put their best out there. One game, one weekend, leave it all on the field kind of thing.”

Iliana’s keys to an Arizona win: “I know they have had some defensive struggles this year, so I would personally say it’s being dynamic and moving up top and getting in the box and trying to test their goalies. Just getting into the box as much as possible because I know we have a lot of success when we can get in the box, get corners, things like that.”

For USC...

Normally one of the top teams in the country, the Trojans (3-3-1, 2-3) are off to a slow start by their standards. They are 0-2-1 in their last three matches but clearly can still hang with anyone, evidenced by their 2-2 draw at No. 4 UCLA last week. USC is normally a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, but the field dropping from 64 to 48 teams this season puts them on the bubble for now. They have six games left and Arizona is the only unranked team remaining on their schedule. They need a win.

Penelope on USC: “Our personnel is way different than it has been. We’ve always been kind of like Arizona. We work hard, we run, we’re super physical. But I would say this year we’re more of a technical team and more possession oriented and we’re willing to just go and attack. ... We’re a very young team and we only had one [non-conference] game to kind of figure everything out and the Pac-12 is going to be super hard this year and it’s been so up in the air. We’re not happy with the three losses that we’ve had, but I would say, going into this game, we’re super focused and these next few games are kind of life or death for us in the tournament. And it means finishing top of the Pac-12, so this is kind of our first game, our first test for the next half of the season.”

Penelope’s keys to beating Arizona: “They’ve always been known to be a really physical team and all they do is run. They don’t stop running. They’ll work hard, they’ll win tackles, they’ll go into everything, and their transitions are really good. I would say we really need to watch out for the transitions and I think their goal in the Oregon (State) game and their goal in the UCLA game both came off of transitions. It was just like three passes and two girls scored, so obviously we need to watch out for that. And just their physicality. We need to match their physicality and we need to really go into tackles harder. Win more tackles to win the game.”

(For more background on the Hockings, check out my feature from last season.)

More magic at the L.A. Coliseum?

The Trojans have won six straight in this series, with the last Wildcats win coming all the way back in 2013, Amato’s first season at the helm.

That match was held at the L.A. Coliseum and so is Friday’s. Normally, USC soccer plays at the much smaller McAlister Field on campus, but their women’s lacrosse team gets dibs because their seasons overlap this year and lacrosse is an actual spring sport.

Not that the soccer team minds.

“They’re kind of jealous that we get the Coliseum and they’re stuck with McAlister,” Penelope joked.

What’s it like playing in a 78,000-seat stadium with no fans?

“It would seem like it would be just empty because it’s so big and there’s no one there except for the two sidelines, but honestly it’s really nice,” Penelope said. “The field is great and even though there’s no fans, just because it’s such a historical place and so many great players have played there before us, I think it’s just super exciting. We all get up for our home games because playing at the Coliseum, no one gets to play at the Coliseum. It’s awesome.”

First kick is at 12:30 p.m. PT on the Pac-12 Networks.

Full interviews

Iliana Hocking

Penelope Hocking