Texas-native, Wake Forest grad, and former DI coach at Temple and Indiana, AJ Misselhorn is ready to coach Penn State Harrisburg’s first DIII field hockey team

The Penn State Harrisburg field hockey team will play club this fall, and then kick off its Division III schedule in 2024.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Amanda Janney Misselhorn wasn’t exposed to a lot of field hockey.


She was one of the few, lucky athletes in the 1990s to attend Trinity Valley School, which offered the sport. Misselhorn loved the game, worked hard, and caught the attention of Atlantic Coast Conference Wake Forest head coach Jen Averill.


As fate would have it, 30 years later, Misselhorn accepted the role of being the first head field hockey coach at Penn State Harrisburg, which is launching its Division III program in 2023. Misselhorn is currently tasked with recruiting athletes and preparing them for the team’s inaugural 2024 season.


“Jen Averill came down to Texas as my Futures (now known as Nexus) coach back in 1993,” Misselhorn said. “She was just a dynamic coach. I never met a female coach like that. I rarely had female coaches in Texas. I got recruited to play at Wake. It was awesome. The interesting part of my story, I got recruited, I’m from Texas, and I didn’t really even know how to hit the ball. I was lucky. Jen gave me a partial scholarship. I wasn’t the best player on her college team. I worked hard for my playing time. I have that appreciation for non-starters. I get it. I know what it’s like to sit on the bench. I try to remember that perspective. I can just kind of understand those players and their fight to get a little bit more playing time.”


Averill’s Demon Deacons are respected across the country. Her reputation precedes her, as many athletes and coaches have heard about her standards.


“Her passion for the game is so inspirational,” Misselhorn said. “When Jen gives a motivational speech before the game, whether that’s diving for a ball or getting bloody knuckles or whatever, that’s what you did. We played on dry sand turf back then, so you got bloody knuckles. Her philosophy matched with my teamwork philosophy.”

The Wake Class of 1999 has a running joke that they were the “pre-natty group,” she said.


“We helped to build the program,” Misselhorn said. “Three seasons after we left, we like to say we took the recruits around the school, and we helped to make them feel welcomed to Wake Forest. Three years later, they won three national championships in a row.”


Misselhorn graduated from Trinity Valley in 1995. She then went to Wake Forest, where she graduated in 1999. In college, she majored in sociology and minored in psychology.


Following graduation, she returned to Texas, where she rejoined Trinity Valley as a physical education teacher. She coached soccer, field hockey, and softball and won a handful of state championships.


Then September 11, 2001 happened. Misselhorn’s cousin died in the terrorist attacks. She was only in her 20s.


“For her life to end so quickly, it was one of those things that reminds you that life is short, and you’ve got to make the most of it,” Misselhorn said. “As much as I loved being a Phys ed teacher, I thought of Jen Averill, and I thought it was out of my realm to be a head coach. I thought I could stay in Texas and coach the rest of my life or try to do something bigger. You just don’t know what tomorrow holds, and you’ve got to go after other opportunities.”


Misselhorn set off on an unknown course. She applied at James Madison University and landed the second assistant coach position, where she coached for a season. She then learned that a friend was departing the University of Pennsylvania. She stepped in as an assistant coach for two seasons. UPenn won the Ivies in 2003-04.


“It was a big confidence boost for me,” Misselhorn said. “I started to think, I can do this. I did a lot of video reviews with super smart kids, breaking down the game, and analyzing it. I honestly don’t know how I got the Temple job. I applied in 2005. I think those Philly connections helped me. I was at Temple for 10 years. I was brave enough to move to Philadelphia, to take a risk and pursue this career path, all the while knowing, you don’t know what tomorrow holds.”


After a decade at Temple, Misselhorn took the leap of leaving the Atlantic-10 to coach a Big 10 program at Indiana University. Amy Robertson, former assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts and then Wake Forest (while Misselhorn played there), started the Hoosiers program. Robertson left Indiana in 2015, which is when Misselhorn took it over.


Four years later, Misslehorn said she wanted to head back east to Pennsylvania.


“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “Amy set up that program. We treated the female athletes so well. I learned a lot. I’m so proud of her for that. When I left Indiana, I wanted to be close to field hockey. The (Lancaster-Lebanon) League and the Mid-Penn Conference, they are good people. There’s something special about the people at Hummelstown, Lower Dauphin, Palmyra, Warwick…the parents, they are just really nice families from central Pennsylvania. I wanted to move back to where field hockey is a big deal. At the time, the US national team was training here at the Nook. Those reasons brought me back.”


Most recently, Misselhorn coached at Warwick for one year and Donegal the two years prior. She took one year off after the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The turf field at Penn State Harrisburg, where field hockey will play its games. Photo: PSU Harrisburg


“High school head coaching was really rewarding,” she said. “I’m pretty excited about Penn State. My career has been building programs. I think back to Wake Forest, and the pre-natty group. We built something there. We got the team culture in the right place. At the time as college players, we weren’t winning or scoring high school stars; that was a thing we helped to create at Wake. That’s what made us so successful down the road. We were team focused. We understood the grittiness of being a college athlete.”


Misselhorn plans to impart a lot of her life’s lessons and hockey strategies into her coaching. But, there are significant differences in what she can do at the Division III level that she couldn’t do at Division I.


For instance, she can contact a prospective player – high school freshman to senior or current college student – 365 days throughout the year. Division I coaches can start recruiting rising juniors after June 15 each year.


There are no rules for countable practice hours in Division III, whereas in Division I, coaches manage, record, and count hours to make sure they don’t go over allocated time and athletes have one day off per week. There are no athletic scholarships in Division III.


“The Division III perspective, it’s nice,” she said. “The hours athletes aren’t at practice; they can do something else. They can get involved in the Harrisburg community, travel abroad, do something special. As a DI coach, I wasn’t encouraging athletes to leave in the Spring. We were training in the Spring. I’m recruiting players to have a really good field hockey experience, teamwork focused culture, but also the perspective of let’s be a college student. It’s not all going to be about field hockey. My perspective is, ‘how am I going to help with college experience that isn’t all field hockey as well.’”


While there are several major differences between Division I and Division III, Misselhorn said representing the Penn State logo means just as much at Harrisburg as it does at State College.


“We are going to build something special,” she said. “We’re not going to be concerned with wins and losses. We’re starting from scratch. We’re trying to recruit incoming 2024s. I’ve already found a player; she’s really talented and plays in Harrisburg. We’ve been in talks. She will be our first player. And, now we’re trying to find some players on campus. If you build a team the right way, if you focus on the many pieces of what it takes to be a successful team, there are different aspects of on-the-field and off-the field, where our focus is on culture and team and hard work, grit and resilience, the wins are going to come. I’m not worried about that. There is a lot of responsibility to put on that logo. Our team is going to represent the university.”


Penn State Harrisburg has been working on adding field hockey to the campus for the past few years. Misselhorn has now filled in the missing piece, said Penn State Harrisburg’s Athletic Director Rahsaan Carlton.


“We could not be more excited to bring on Coach AJ as our very first head field hockey coach,” Carlton said in a university statement. “Her experience speaks for itself but we were most impressed with her philosophy of ensuring that student-athlete well-being remains the top priority at all times. We are thrilled that she is joining our team and will lead the way in building our newest program.”


Misselhorn said the university has already set up the team for success with its new, state-of-the-art facilities. She said she already has some new equipment that’s ready to be used. And, as far as recruiting athletes goes, she’s working on her strategy. She said when she was head coach at Temple, she connected with her American pride. She recruited only players from within the United States.


She’s just starting to decide her recruiting reach as she grows into her role at Penn State Harrisburg. The program found out on June 22 that they would be playing in the newly merged United East Conference, which includes Lancaster Bible, Cedar Crest, and Keystone colleges.


“The tuition is amazingly affordable,” she said. “Before I understood all the details of how I’m allowed to recruit for Penn State, I was thinking I would recruit all in-state athletes like I did when I was at Temple. But, then I learned about the Discover Penn State award and that allows student-athletes in surrounding states to be eligible for scholarship money. It broadens our range of recruiting.”


The Discover Penn State Award allows “qualifying students to save $6,000 per year in their first two years of their Penn State education and $7,000 per year in the third and fourth years,” according to Penn State.


Misselhorn, who lives in Lancaster, is thrilled that her commute is 24 minutes and is happy that her husband works in Harrisburg.


“I’d like to recruit between 22 to 25 athletes,” she said. “Twenty-two is always a perfect number. You can scrimmage without the coaches having to scrimmage. We need 10 players this fall. We are looking to recruit a variety of people. Being in this area, I’m expecting to find some talented students on campus. I’m excited to get out there to meet some of the students.”

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