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What’s buzzing, and what should be buzzed about, in the wide world of Minnesota high school sports.

51 Hours of Fury: Dropping to 1A fostered hope for Armstrong/Cooper

 

 

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.”

Epic battle: Eden Prairie vs. Minnehaha matches No. 1s in 3A, 4A

Eden Prairie guard Drake Dobbs handing the basketball in a December victory over East Ridge (Photo by Mark Hvidsten)

If local basketball fans thought January’s visit from Sierra Canyon (Cal.) – a game won by Minnehaha Academy 78-58 in front of 17,000-plus fans at Target Center -- was huge, it pales in comparison with Tuesday’s potentially epic matchup when undefeated and No. 1, 4A Eden Prairie travels to play at No. 1, 3A Minnehaha Academy.

The Sierra Canyon matchup, while drawing plenty of eyes, was largely an exhibition, devoid of any meaningful relevance. Pitting the most high-profile program in the state, Minnehaha, against an Eden Prairie team that is undefeated and features a skilled veteran lineup that has dispatched all 23 foes it has faced has got fans drooling.

“My phone is ringing consistently about tickets,” Minnehaha Academy Athletic Director Josh Thurow said in a text message. “It should be a fun one.”

Thurow said the school will set up 350 extra chairs in its auxiliary gym, which is adjacent to the main gym behind the west end of the court, and plans to allow standing room wherever possible.

Most observers view this game to be Minnehaha’s toughest test since the Redhawks lost to Hopkins 92-85 in overtime on Dec. 17, a game they played without shot-swatting 7-foot Chet Holmgren.

Eden Prairie’s calling card is experience and team play. Uncanny guard Drake Dobbs leads a cadre of four seniors – including Connor Christensen, Austin Andrews and John Henry – who have played varsity basketball together since ninth grade. With the exception of the 6-1 Dobbs, all are between 6-5 and 6-7, average between 12.8 and 18.7 points per game, play defense with passion and execute a brand of team-first basketball that warms the hearts of oldtimers.

While they mesh together seamlessly, each contributes a different skill set. Dobbs is a Maravich-esque gym rat who can turn an opposing defender inside out, Andrews is a smooth, polished inside presence with marvelous footwork. Henry is a left-handed long-range bomber who can beat defenders off the dribble. Christensen is a gritty heart-and-soul type who is always the hardest worker on the floor.

Each has scored more than 1,000 points in his career, marking the first time in state history that one team has four players in the same class reach that milestone.

Since losing to Hopkins (which Eden Prairie beat 81-75 last Tuesday), Minnehaha Academy has reeled off 16 consecutive wins and sits at 19-2. While Jalen Suggs and Holmgren are practically household names among basketball fans, sophomore forward Prince Aligbe’s game is rounding into shape are the right time. He’s scored in double figures in each of the Redhawks’ last four games.

The x-factor for Minnehaha Academy is slick and sudden junior guard Hercy Miller, who is averaging right around 8 points per game and can take some of the ball-handling pressure off Suggs.

Game time is 7 p.m. Tuesday, but fans hoping to see the game in person will need to get their early if they hope to get in at all.

“I’m telling people to arrive by 5:30 for the JV game,” Thurow said.

The game will be livestreamed on the High School Sports Network, a subscription video service that shows games from dozens of schools around Minnesota.