Ice Network

Digerness, Neudecker cling to slim pairs lead

Talented field tight at the top; Kopmar, Barrett less than one point off pace
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Despite suffering a fall on their side-by-side double axels, Nica Digerness and Danny Neudecker of Colorado Springs rose to the top of the leaderboard, collecting 54.66 points for their performance of their "Ninja" short. -Jay Adeff

Nica Digerness and Danny Neudecker performed a smooth and stylish short program to Khachaturian's Spartacus to eke out a 0.65-point lead over Elli Kopmar and Jonah Barrett in the junior pairs short program Tuesday night at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Colorado Springs-based skaters, who train in Dalilah Sappenfield's group at the World Arena, overcame Digerness' fall on a double axel with other strong elements -- including a solid triple twist and fine axel lasso lift -- to earn 54.66 points.

"Our components were really good, and most of our elements went well," Digerness, 16, said. "I could have checked a little harder on the landing of the double axel."

"We've been working on the presentation, and that's been our big focus, not really the elements at all," Neudecker, 20, said. "It felt really good. We smiled through the whole program."

Digerness and Neudecker paired up about 18 months ago, and this is their second season training in Colorado Springs. Last season, they placed seventh in novice.

"It was a personal-best program for them," Sappenfield said. "Our goal was to get [Nica] confident with the double axel in the short; she is more confident with it in the long. She had it; she just needed to check out of it. She has to own it, because it's not an element she misses at home. Otherwise, we were really pleased."

Kopmar and Barrett, too, executed solid elements in their short set to exotic Middle Eastern music, including side-by-side double axels, a Level 2 triple twist and a free-flowing step sequence that saw Barrett leap into a fine split jump.

"We skated to our potential, and we kept it calm, kept it easy, and that's all we really had to do," Barrett, 19, said. "At the beginning of the season, the music felt so different from anything we'd ever done before and was out of our comfort zone. Now, we've come to love it a lot."

The Ellenton, Florida, skaters are bidding for their third consecutive U.S. title, having won the intermediate pairs crown in 2015 and the novice title last season.

"When we first started, I didn't dream we would be so successful, because it was just the first couple of years," Kopmar, 13, said. "Now I feel more confident. We just try to copy and paste what we do at home, and it feels really good."

Jim Peterson, who heads up a coaching team including Amanda Evora and Lyndon Johnston, was pleased with how his team executed some new elements.

"I was really happy because it's the first time they've done the triple twist and a really solid set of double axels," he said. "We had planned a throw triple, but we thought it was safer to do a double today, because there was so much new content they had not performed under pressure before."

Alexandria Yao and Austin Hale performed an elegant program to a modern version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," highlighted by their well-matched lines and a lovely, free-flowing step sequence that gained Level 4 from the technical panel. They are close behind the leaders with 53.55 points.

"We tried a couple of harder elements (including triple twist and double axels), and I think we did pretty well in attempting them," Yao, 16, said. "I'm just really happy we got to show off the program at nationals."

"We only teamed up in August of last year," Hale, 20, said. "We tried a few new tricks, and we did pretty well."

Hale won junior bronze medals in 2015 and 2016 with two other partners, but he and Yao teamed up just over four months ago.

"I am so proud that they were able to put out a good program after such a short time together," said Alena Lunin, who coaches the pair in Fort Wayne, Indianad. "[Yao] has only skated pairs for about two years."

Lindsay Weinstein and Jacob Simon, winners of the junior silver medal last season, skated a polished short to Maxime Rodriguez's "Eleonore" and sit fourth with 52.48 points.