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AC Wings players Ben Anderson (left) and Jack Campion (right) helped lift the team to the Class 1A, Section 2 final. Photo credit: Mark Bloom/AllSportPhotography

Playoff cannon fodder the past five years, the Armstrong/Cooper boys’ hockey team is finding hope in its first postseason against Class 1A competition.

If they can defeat Delano in Thursday’s Section 2 title game, the AC Wings (15-11-1) clinch a state tournament appearance. Until earlier this week, the combined program had not reached a semifinal. Their only postseason victory was a play-in game two years ago.

Hope for change came this season when the AC Wings joined four other programs, Cambridge-Isanti, Dodge County, St. Francis and Tartan, in a migration to Class 1A.

“As a coach, you want your players to feel like they have something to play for,” AC Wings coach Danny Charleston said. “I hear people say, ‘Oh, you’re a 2A school playing 1A.’ That’s malarkey. We’re not a small school but we’re small in terms of numbers.”

The entire youth program competes at the A level, Charleston said. Armstrong, located in Plymouth, provides the entire varsity roster and all but one player on the JV roster.

As a Benilde-St. Margaret’s forward, Charleston won the 2001 Class 1A state title. He helped coach the 2012 Red Knights to the Class 2A title then took the Armstrong job.

Charleston hopes to mimic Benilde-St. Margaret’s rise from 1A power to a competitive 2A program.

“We feel this is a great starting point to build from,” Charleston said of playing at least two seasons of 1A hockey. “How do you build a successful program if you never win?

“We look forward to building on this,” Charleston said. “As we tell our players all the time –it’s not about where we’re at today. It’s about where we’re at tomorrow.”

Whatever success the AC Wings have against defending Section 2 champion Delano (21-6), will likely involve a Campion. Senior forward Jack Campion, the team leader with 26 goals, and younger brother Teddy, a junior forward, are the sons of former Western Collegiate Hockey Association referee Jon Campion.

They are joined by twin senior cousins Joe, a defenseman, and Matt, a forward. Their younger sister, Julia, was a sophomore for the girls’ hockey program this season.

Yet another cousin, Chuck, is a senior defenseman on Delano’s team.

“If you’re a betting man, you can put your money on a Campion going to state,” Charleston joked.

Charleston believes his team is playing with house money against a Delano team with all the pressure to repeat as section champions. His AC Wings have nothing to lose and have already gained a ton.

“We’re excited about the hockey buzz in our building right now,” Charleston said. “Our fans have really been coming out to support us. And we’ve been saying, ‘Whether you’re JV, a bantam or a squirt, this is everybody’s deal.’ We’re playing for our community.”