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Tight competition in junior dance

Favorites falter, allowing dark horses to climb

Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein.
Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/22/2008) - The junior ice dancers put on a wide-ranging display of country/folk dances, from a German polka to a Finnish waltz to a Peruvian scarf dance, but there were a few more slips and spills than coaches would have liked.

Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein, fourth after the compulsory, took advantage of uncharacteristic errors from the top-placed teams to win the Original Dance (OD) competition, and rise to second place overall going into the free dance.

"We really went for it tonight," the 19-year-old Zuerlein said. "I think we improved our overall performance and used a lot of expression."

"Everything felt strong," added the 15-year-old Chock. "We just kept pushing and pushing."

Performing a romantic Russian Gypsy dance to "Dark Eyes," the couple earned Level 4's for all six of their elements, including a creative opening straight-line lift with Chock wrapped around Zuerlein's leg. Their mid-line step and twizzle sequences showed good unison, and they received positive grades of execution (GOE's) across the board.

"It was one of the best skates this season from them," the couple's coach, Igor Shpilband, said. "They had some problems with the OD at the Junior Grand Prix Final, so I'm happy it was nice and solid here."

Chock and Zuerlein, who train in Canton, Mich., earned 53.03 points for "Dark Eyes" and enter the free dance with 82.95 points overall. They are 2.72 points off the lead.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani were second in the OD, climbing from seventh place after the compulsory to fourth overall.

They made the jump with a clean, inspired version of their Japanese folk dance set to taiko drums. Five of their six elements gained Level 4, and all received positive GOE's.

The Shibutanis, who also train in Shpilband's school, recently added a fan to their program. Props are allowed in the OD, but there is a deduction for any dropped or tossed items.

"We used the fan at Sectionals, and we also changed the lifts a bit," 13-year-old Maia said. "We feel like we've really grown into the program and can connect with it more now than at the beginning of the season."

Maia, born July 20, 1994, was 20 days too young to compete on the fall Junior Grand Prix.

"In a way, it was a blessing in disguise," 16-year-old Alex said. "It let us mature another year as skaters before we go out internationally."

The favorites, Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell, placed third with their German folk dance after Keiffer took a tumble at the end of the sibling's mid-line step sequence.

Despite this error, the Hubbells earned the highest Program Component Scores (PCS) of the event (22.74 points) and 50.66 points for the segment. They remain in first place overall with 85.27 points.

"It's a mistake; hopefully we can move on from it," 19-year-old Keiffer said. "It was a big surprise, though."

"We've been training really hard the last month or so after Sectionals," his 16-year-old sister added. "We've changed our footwork to make it deeper, to try to get Level 4. Any skater will tell you the most difficult footwork leaves lots of room for error."

The Hubbells's head coach, Iouri Tchesnitchenko, who trains the team in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Keiffer's injury cost the team valuable training time.

"It did set them back, because they were off the ice quite a while," he said. "It was only after Sectionals that we trained full out. Luckily, he is getting better all the time."

The evening was also a bit of a disappointment for Piper Gilles and Timothy McKernan of Colorado Springs, whose charming Irish folk dance suffered a bit from a rather slow and labored serpentine step sequence.

"It felt strong, until that element," the 19-year-old McKernan said. "We tensed up and didn't get down in our knees."

This is their second OD of the season. Their first, set to "St. James Infirmary," was a bit controversial with some officials, who did not consider a blues theme appropriate for a folk/country dance.

"We worked with Christopher Dean on this new program, and he is so much fun," Gilles said. "He starts out kind of quiet, but once we had worked with him for a while he really opened up. His wife, Jill Trenary, is working with my sister Alexe on her singles' skating."

"He has so many crazy ideas for lifts," McKernan added. "He'll show me something I can't do, we'll work on it for a while, and if I still can't get it, he comes up with another idea. He's always out there on the ice by himself, dancing with his headphones on."

Although Gilles and McKernan were fourth in the OD, they stand third overall with 81.21 points.

Yet another Shpilband-trained team, Shannon Wingle and Ryan Devereaux, placed fifth in the OD and climbed to sixth overall with 76.59 points. Pilar Bosley and John Corona's exotic Indian dance placed sixth, dropping the team from third after the compulsory to fifth overall with 78.42 points.