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Perfect game plan puts Aaron, Settlage in front

2011 novice champions grab junior pairs lead; Liu, Perini land second
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Reigning U.S. junior bronze medalists Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, skating to 'Memoirs of a Geisha' jumped ahead of the pairs field with 58.77 points. -Jay Adeff

Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage entered the 2013-14 campaign with the goal of keeping their emotions in check and treating every competition like a performance.

The veteran pairs team executed that game plan to perfection Wednesday night en route to the short program victory at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

"A big thing for us is learning how to stay calm when we are competing," Aaron said. "That's the best we've ever done."

The Colorado Springs-based duo, performing to "The Chairman's Waltz," from the Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack by John Williams, rang up a personal-best 58.77 points. California teams Chelsea Liu and Devin Perini finished second with a score of 53.93, while AnnaMarie Pearce and Jason Pacini are third in the 10-team field with a score of 52.28.

Aaron and Settlage, who won the 2011 novice title and are in their third season as juniors, experienced a meltdown of sorts last year at the U.S. championships in Omaha, Neb. They led after the short program, only to fall three times in the free skate and barely hang on for the bronze medal.

"The big thing this year was for them to trust their training," coach Dalilah Sappenfield said. "This year they've trained smarter; they are not as emotional, they don't react to mistakes. At home, they are running programs, and if there's a mistake, they are capable of leaving it behind, which is a big thing for them so it doesn't snowball. They stay in moment and realize they don't have to be perfect."

In the short program, they successfully landed their double Axels and received Level 3 and Level 4 for their lifts, spins and footwork. They also nicely executed their throws and death spiral.

"We've trained this program so much that it was just another run-through," Settlage said.

Liu and Perini delighted the packed house with their energetic 42nd Street program by the Boston Pops Orchestra. Coached by Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, the 2013 U.S. junior pairs pewter medalists received Level 4 on their step sequence, lift and pair combination spin.

"We had two Junior Grand Prixs this year, and I think that this one was one of the better programs that we've done," Perini said. "There was a lot of energy between us. Our connection has been getting better. It has been something that we've been working on."

Their on-ice connection is just one of the many aspects of their skating that has experienced growth, as Liu is now close to 5-feet tall.

"I've grown about five or six inches," Liu said. "I'm about 4 feet and 11 1/2 inches. The half an inch counts!"

While growth spurts can sometimes hinder a skater, Liu and Perini have continued to flourish in their fourth season together.

"She has grown quite a bit, but now she has a beautiful double Axel, and that was a big step for them," Meno said. "Their skating quality, togetherness and quality has improved so much. The biggest thing for us is for them to keep improving every year and not focus on the result so much, but to focus on the new Chelsea and Devin."

Pearce and Pacini, also coached by Meno and Sand, counted themselves fortunate to have not only qualified for the U.S. championships but to have placed third after the short program.

"We just wanted to go out there and skate our best," Pearce said. "We haven't had as many months to train as some of the other teams, so going out there and just skating as well as we possibly could with the obstacles we've had, I feel like I've won just because of that."

In the middle of last summer, Pacini broke his ankle. He also had to deal with a hip injury while she dealt with an ankle injury.

"This was a lot better than our sectional performance," Pearce said.

The two skated to "La Vie En Rose" by Guglielmi and "Sous le Ciel de Paris" by Giraud.

"I thought it went fantastically," Pacini said.

Their lifts, spins and footwork at the end of the program all received Level 4.

The California-based team of Elise Middleton and Anthony Evans, also coached by Meno and Sand, finished fourth with a score of 49.20.

"We were trying to stay low in our knees and keep a smooth program going, and I think we did that," Evans said about their "Moon River" performance, "And with that result, we're happy."
  
Middleton, who placed third in the novice event in 2013 with Robert Hennings, had another focused performance.

"I was just thinking about smiling," she said. "My coaches told me, 'You better smile.'"

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