As Penelope Hocking warmed up on the sideline, she knew she needed to make an impact. France had just taken the lead on the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team while the rain poured down in Saint-Malo during an international friendly last March. Steam rose from the heads of the substitutes as they waited for their chance on a cold, damp evening.
If Hocking wasn’t so focused on the task at hand, she might have taken a moment to reflect on the past 12 months.
One year earlier, Hocking participated in her first National Team camp, a U-19 event. In her exit meeting after that week of training, the coaches told her she needed to get fitter. She needed to improve her tactical awareness and clean up her technical skills. In short, the staff needed to see all-around improvement before she would earn another call-up to the National Team.
It took nearly a full year of dogged determination for Hocking to earn her way back. Away from the National Team environment, the forward strived to get better every day as she worked hard with her club team – the So Cal Blues – and on her own, before she finally earned another invite this past February with the U-19s. She performed so well there, that shortly after, she earned her first call-up to the U-20s.
Back in Saint-Malo, Hocking didn’t have any nerves on the sideline. Instead, she stood on a foundation of all the work she had done, excited to enter the match with a chance to change the game. That year on the grind gave her the confidence to know she could.
Twenty minutes after she came on, Hocking played a ball from the top of the penalty box and threaded it through the sheets of rain to forward Sophia Smith on the run towards goal. She slotted it home to draw the USA even.
One year after the National Team staff told her she needed to improve, Hocking responded. U.S. U-20 WNT head coach Jitka Klimkova was duly impressed at how well she had taken the input of coaches, self-evaluated and returned to the National Team a better player.
“She improved everything,” U-20 WNT head coach Jitka Klimkova said. “Her technique, her tactical decisions. One year later, she’s a totally different player. It’s a big credit to her. One year she was working with her club, with herself, with her trainer. It’s about how she improved, how she took responsibility of her development. Some players might think ‘I’m not invited back, what does it mean for me?’ For her it was, “I want to be back and I will be back. I will work on all the things the coaches told me.”
A superb student who will attend USC in the fall, she embraced her soccer homework.
“I got home and I just called up a strength coach,” Hocking said. “I just did all that I could to work on the things they said so I could be ready for the next call-up.”
Still in high school, Hocking committed to the grind. She’d wake up at six o’clock every morning to get in fitness work, go to school, head to training with her youth club and get even more conditioning in before or after practice. She balanced the extra gym sessions, running and weightlifting with an AP-heavy class-load and still managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average.
“When I woke up every morning I knew, if this is what I have to do be back in camp, then I’m going to do it,” Hocking said. “It wasn’t fun sometimes, but I knew it’s what I had to do. It was really hard that second semester of high school, getting up in the morning, doing strength, doing fitness, doing club and keeping my grades up too. But I was really committed to my goals.”
The summer allowed even more time for Hocking to dedicate to her craft. She spent every spare moment with a soccer ball, playing with her club, with boys, pick-up, anything to continue her upward improvement.
In the fall, Hocking’s Blues took the field as one of 69 clubs in the inaugural season of the U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academy. When the team kicked off its season, Hocking stood out as one of the fittest players on the field.
The work clearly paid dividends throughout the 2017-18 campaign. The forward led the entire Academy in scoring with 36 goals in 19 games. The program’s increased focus on training four times a week ensured that her fitness stayed top-notch after her workhorse summer.
“It was hard, but it got me ready for the international level, and for college too,” Hocking said. “I think I got fitter, just practicing every single day and playing games. I was literally on the field five to six times a week.
Hocking’s goal-scoring exploits didn’t go unnoticed. As she tore it up, her play caught the attention of Academy scouts and Youth National Team coaches as she earned an invite to a domestic camp with the U-19 WNT in February
“I was checking my e-mail one morning and I just saw (the invite to the U-19 camp) pop up and I was like, this isn’t real,” Hocking said. “I clicked on it, I read through it like three times and I was like ‘Is this actually a call-up?’ I was super-excited. Those next two weeks that I was home, I worked my butt off to make sure I was ready for that camp. I just knew that everything paid off. I was just determined that I’d get back there and it happened.”
The forward had turned heads in the Academy all season long, and she looked equally impressive in camp with the U-19s. That led to an invitation to join the U-18 WNT at March’s U-20 La Manga Tournament in Spain, but Klimkova called her just before the U-20s were scheduled to leave for their matches in France.
“My heart just dropped,” Hocking said. “After that, I was super nervous because I’d barely been with the 19s and just going right to the 20s was kind of a shock. The level from the 19s to the 20s is a huge difference. The 20s’ speed of play is super-fast. Every day I just kind of learned from the other players who had been there.”
When she joined the U-20s, she’d need to get acclimated to a team that had played together for almost a year. While the game-tying assist helped her earn the team’s trust on the field, the aftermath of the play really caught her coach’s attention.
“Instead of being satisfied with the draw, she was running and sprinting for the ball to keep going,” Klimkova said. “That was impressive. Those signs, they help gain the respect of others. She thought, ‘we want to score one more.’ Those little moments help her, because people see it. They see how she is, her priorities, it’s about the team and about the win.”
Even with limited minutes in France, Hocking threatened on the attack and made her presence felt. When she left that event, she returned home and went about her business the same way she had a year earlier -- she worked as hard as she could to earn another National Team call-up.
Hocking continued to earn invitations with the U-20s in the spring, and with each scoring chance, the bench would get up and start to cheer as she searched for her first goal. After several opportunities in her first few appearances, she finally broke through against Haiti in the Tournoi Maurcice Revello Sud Ladies Cup. In a 7-0 win that showed how far the USA had come from a narrow victory over the Haitians in World Cup qualifying, Hocking’s progression shone.
“I have chills thinking about it,” Klimkova said. “When she scored, everyone was sprinting towards her and celebrating like we scored a World Cup-winning goal. It’s amazing feedback for her that people support her. It helps her confidence, helps her freedom on the field.”
Hocking carried the momentum of her first goal and netted a follow-up in a 3-1 victory over France three days later to clinch the tournament title. She tallied again in the USA’s World Cup warm-up match vs. Brazil on June 30.
While the year of hard work brought her back to the National Team, the forward’s continued efforts have built her into a consistent attacking threat for the U-20 WNT. Hocking’s drive has carried her all the way to France for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Now, she’ll look to make an impact against the world’s best.
“All I wanted was to make the World Cup team,” Hocking said. “It’s all I’ve really wanted since my first camp. My confidence just rose every single camp because I knew I was improving. To know that hard work and determination really does payoff is really gratifying and it’s just the coolest thing ever.”