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The two sides to USC soccer phenom Penelope Hocking's relentlessness

UniqueThis 3 Sep 23
7:30 AM ET

Hawaii is paradise, right up until an opponent plants a forearm in the small of your back or a knee in your thigh one too many times on a Honolulu evening.

Nearly an hour into USC's season opener at Hawaii, a game in which it took one of the best young goal scorers in college soccer less than nine minutes to give her team the lead, Penelope Hocking was fed up. She believed that a defender escaped unpunished after a foul. Again. She sought her own justice. As it often does, the retaliation drew the whistle.

She kicked the ball in frustration. Maybe at the opponent, maybe in her general direction. Either way, the referee pulled out a yellow card.

"I knew that I screwed up," Hocking said. "I knew that was a moment when my emotions got the best of me."

She went into the referee's book. She also went to bench, left by her coach to contemplate her misdeeds. Hocking didn't argue that decision.

"I knew you were fouled, I knew they got the call wrong," coach Keidane McAlpine recalled telling her. "It doesn't matter to me. It's more about your response to that moment. It wasn't the right one. And it's one that later on could cost the entire team, not just you. So you've got to put it in check."

"I'm there to score, do whatever I can to help my team. Sometimes that brings out the worst in me." Penelope Hocking

Few wish to be judged by their worst moments. Perhaps none deserve to be judged solely by their best. The challenge with Hocking is that her best and worst often spring from the same source. Half of a dynamic duo alongside Tara McKeown that has propelled No. 3 USC entering Saturday's showdown against No. 2 Stanford, Hocking is a forward who welcomes the responsibility for scoring goals and has the technical skill to provide them -- 21 times in 28 college appearances.

Hocking is unrelenting in pursuit of success. That relentlessness could one day soon carry her to the U.S. national team. It is an asset as valuable as any wizardry with the ball at her feet.

It is also her greatest liability, one that over the years saw opponents, teammates and even her own reputation at risk of becoming collateral damage in the wake of a temper inseparable from competitiveness.

"My emotions got the best of me at certain times and I've lashed out on certain ways that I'm unhappy with," Hocking said. "I look back at those moments and I'm obviously embarrassed, and I don't like that side of me. And I've worked to change it because I've noticed it myself and I've been like, 'I don't want to be this person. I don't want to be this player.'

"I think I haven't lost that competitiveness and that drive that I have -- and I don't want to lose that. But I've also channeled my emotions better."

Long before he was Penelope's dad, before a 13-year career in Major League Baseball, Denny Hocking was a good soccer player. Just not good enough for one coach in a local youth league.

This particular coach didn't pick Hocking when teams filled out their rosters. Her team beat Denny's team. Then she offered him a ride home. She was going that way anyway. Because she was his mom.

"She actually thought I was going to get in the car and drive home with her," he recalled. "I was like, 'Yeah, I'll walk home.'"

So while not quite an heirloom and not exactly genetic, competitiveness clearly runs in the family. (Venetta Hocking, Penelope's mom, also played college basketball.) Coaching his twins, Penelope and Iliana, in their Southern California youth leagues, easygoing surroundings with rules that everyone must play, it wasn't all about winning. Denny learned many of the girls responded best to positive reinforcement. But he couldn't help noticing that it didn't work so well on Penelope and Iliana. He would try and tell them they played well. They would say they sucked -- they lost.

That competitiveness drove them to improve. It's also why one acquaintance, whose daughter had previously played with the Hockings and was about to play against them, relayed the sentiments of another parent.

Oh great, we're playing Canyon. I hate those Hocking girls.

Never mind that the soccer field was all they knew of the sisters.

Denny recalled one Canyon High School game when Penelope again felt an opponent went unpunished for persistent fouling. When the referee finally issued the opponent a yellow card for her accumulated sins, Penelope sarcastically waved her off the field.

Which promptly earned her a yellow card of her own.

"I wasn't exactly happy with how she carried herself," Denny said. "I would go so far as to say I was disappointed in how she represented herself, her school, her family. After the game I was not looking forward to the conversation."

Yet before he could confront who he figured would be a still combative defendant, he saw her chatting amiably with a younger girl who was there to watch her play. His anger vanished. Looking on, even Penelope's dad struggled to make sense of such different demeanors.

Quiet, mild-mannered and eager to be around friends off the field. A solitary, raging storm on it.

"I'm there to score, do whatever I can to help my team," Penelope said in trying to explain the dichotomy. "Sometimes that brings out the worst in me."

Less often than it used to. An outburst like Hawaii is now more exception than rule.

"She has grown so much over these past two years," said Iliana, now a sophomore midfielder at Arizona. "She's really just dialed in and focused on her touch and playing off people and being less selfish at times. I'd say she has really developed in that aspect. She stays a lot more patient and doesn't get as frustrated now."

Watching USC in person for one of the first times after the end of the baseball season -- his role now is manager of the Class A Modesto Nuts -- Denny saw Penelope start to verbally go at a teammate over an errant pass. He knew the signs of a brewing storm. But minutes later, he saw her with her arm around the same teammate. Penelope recalled the same moment, each player trying to explain what they saw that led to the miscommunication and each accepting blame.

Then they simply carried on with the game, Penelope scoring, as usual, in a comfortable win.

In moments like that, or in the season-long chemistry with McKeown that has helped USC withstand the loss of injured midfielder dynamo Savannah DeMelo, there is growth.

"Forget her skill set, forget her success, that's all fine and dandy," Denny said. "What I really notice is how she acts and who she is when things aren't going her way. When her touch is letting her down, what is she doing? She's done an amazing job of really maturing and handling her emotions -- not just with herself, but with her teammates."

Penelope tasted the upper reaches of the sport as a member of the team that represented the United States in last year's Under-20 Women's World Cup. She got another taste when USC traveled to Europe this summer, the trip timed to attend World Cup matches in France, including the opening U.S. win.

Watching more than 40,000 French fans cheer on Wendie Renard in the opener or a stadium full of Americans cheering on the U.S., Penelope saw a future that is possible if she harnesses her own competitiveness as well as someone like U.S. midfield wrecking ball Julie Ertz.

"She knows she's really good but she will never stop working hard," Penelope said. "She'll always be the first to go into a tackle super hard, she'll always communicate really well. She looks super composed and calm and stays true to herself. Yeah, she's a super intense person and she's super physical, but she doesn't let that get the best of her.

"I work to be a player like her."