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Chicago Jazz take lead in junior short program

Colonials at unforeseen fourth

The Jazz sit in first after the short program.
The Jazz sit in first after the short program. (Paul Harvath)

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By Rebecca Staed, special to icenetwork.com
(02/21/2008) - The Chicago Jazz junior team has taken synchronized skating by storm this year, collecting gold so far at both the 2008 Mid-America Synchronized Skating Championships, which earned them a berth to the World Synchronized Skating Challenge Cup for Juniors, and at the Spring Cup in Milan earlier this month. The Jazz earned 67.16 points for their lyrical short program to "Scores East of Eden" at the 2008 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, taking the lead and putting an almost two-point gap between themselves and Miami University's junior varsity team, which earned 65.38 points for their short program.

"We really loved the music when Michelle Kwan skated to it, so we have been listening to it for two seasons now and warming up to it at home," Chicago Jazz coach Lisa Darken said. "They are very familiar with it. They want to skate like her."

If their long program is just as strong, they stand a good chance of medaling like Kwan. Packed with intricate components, the Jazz's short program had a base value of 33.00, one-and-a-half points shy of the maximum base value for a short program. The team neatly executed their triangular intersection and lines with a Level 4 step sequence. They finished with a strong circle, also with a Level 4 step sequence, and a Level 3 block with a Level 4 step sequence.

Much of the team began skating together at the juvenile level, and over half the skaters have been with Darken since the novice level. One such skater is 18-year-old Amanda Rajner, who is a nine-year Jazz veteran.

"We have been working really hard this whole year," Rajner said. "We just want to keep improving. Our main goal has been working our way up to nationals and worlds."

"The goal coming into this was to win," Darken said. "The focus was first on nationals, and always on worlds, but they want to win nationals."

After nationals, this very "determined" group of girls perform on the world stage at the World Challenge Cup for Juniors in March in Rouen, France.

Miami University's junior varsity team made it a close contest with their sassy short program, set to "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray. The strongest element from the night's most entertaining program was a Level 3 circle with a Level 4 step sequence. The program had a maximum base value (34.50), and the team earned only one deduction for not maintaining the shape of a triangular intersection.

Unlike many others, Miami's team, which claimed gold at the Midwestern Synchronized Skating Sectional Championships earlier this month in Nashville, is practically brand new every year.

"Tonight is a testament to the quality of skating and the coaching that we have at Miami," coach Carla DeGirolamo said. "We are able to take 20 strangers and make them a team and be successful. It's taken a lot of hard work. It hasn't been easy, but it's been worth it."

This year, every girl on the team is brand new except for Miami University sophomore Jessica Swartz, who is a second-year junior.

"The performance felt great," Swartz, 19, said. "There was lots of energy on the ice -- all smiles. You just feed off each other. This is my favorite program. There is so much attitude and personality that you can put into it."

The two-year-old Lexettes, this year's Eastern Sectionals junior champions, were the night's biggest shocker. They continued making a name for themselves by snatching third place in the short program with 64.41 points.

Their program, to music from the movie Anastasia, opened with their strongest element, a circle with a Level 4 step sequence, and finished with a 42.30 technical element score -- the highest of the night. The expressive, balletic program brought coach Dede Wilson to tears.

"I thought their performance was breathtaking," she said. "I expected them to do very well. They have been consistently working very hard, getting all the little details."

Wilson said the team has another strong program lined up for the free skate, which she expects will earn them a medal Saturday.

"They have a really strong chance to stay up there with the top teams," said Wilson, wiping away her tears with a tissue.

Surprisingly, last year's silver medalists, the Colonials, settled for fourth place. Their "Colors of the Wind" short program earned a personal best of 62.71 points. A step sequence in their block was downgraded from a Level 4 to a Level 3, and they also received a deduction for not maintaining the shape of a triangular intersection.

Otherwise, they received all calls and delighted their coach, Merita Mullen, who said she enjoys being the underdog and likens her team to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

"I train my teams not to peak before nationals," Mullen said. "We start out slow, but we all know about slow and steady winning the race. Slow and steady makes a successful season. This is where I plan for them to have a personal best, and it rarely goes according to plan in figure skating, so I am thrilled for this kids. Job well done."