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Shpilband says Davis, White ready for U.S. title

With Belbin, Agosto absent, young team seems unstoppable

Meryl Davis and Charlie White look poised for their first U.S. national title.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White look poised for their first U.S. national title. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/21/2009) - Before five-time champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto withdrew from the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships with injury, some may have wondered whether Meryl Davis and Charlie White were ready to wrest the title from them.

To Igor Shpilband, it isn't even a question.

"Meryl and Charlie are ready to go out and compete no matter [whether] Tanith and Ben are here or not," he said. "They did great in the Grand Prix and they are ready to challenge anyone. Absolutely, they could win."

Shpilband coached Belbin and Agosto for more than a decade, teaming the couple in 1998 and guiding them to the 2006 Olympic silver medal. After placing fourth at worlds last season -- the first time since 2004 they had finished off the podium -- they changed coaches, moving to Aston, Pa., to train with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov.

Now, Davis and White are the top team in Shpilband's Canton, Mich., stable. This fall, they won Skate Canada, equaled Belbin and Agosto's point total in the ISU Grand Prix series, and grabbed a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final when their former training partners withdrew.

After today's compulsory dance, the 21-year-old White said being the front-runners hasn't changed their mindsets a bit.

"When you're out there you really don't think about it at all," he laughed. "I'm smiling at Meryl, pushing hard at the intro, so it's not something we're thinking about."

"We were there at the Grand Prix Final when [Belbin and Agosto] pulled out. We knew Ben's back was injured so we weren't completely surprised," Davis, 22, added. "Obviously, we feel bad for them. It's a sport, and it happens sometimes. But we know they'll be back strong."

This afternoon's compulsory, the Viennese Waltz, suited Davis and White to a tee. Their light, effervescent dance, marked by superior speed and close holds, earned 39.93 points, opening a 3.65-point lead over the field.

"It had a lot of attack, a lot of expression, a lot of things that we've been at home working on," White said. "It's always good when you can come to competitions and accomplish those things."

World junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates took second with 36.28 points, performing their strongest Viennese Waltz ever as they seek to qualify for the U.S. World Team for the first time.

"The dance felt really strong, we've been working on it for two years now," Samuelson, 18, said. "We competed it last year, and it felt good out there today."

"I think we got our personal-best score, so we're really excited about that," Bates, 19, added. "We've been here two or three days already, and we finally got to start, so it's good to get that under our belts."

The couple trains in Ann Arbor, Mich., under Yuri Chesnichenko and Yaroslava Nechaeva. Like Davis and White, they are students at the University of Michigan.

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, who captured the U.S. bronze medal last season, sit third with 35.22 points.

"This is actually the first time we've ever competed this dance together," Bommentre, 24, said. "We only started training it after NHK Trophy. We had put it on the shelf to train the Paso [Doble]."

"Ideally, we wanted more training time, but we're pleased with the performance," Navarro, 27, added.

Siblings Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell, who won the U.S. junior ice dance title last season, captured fourth with 32.52 points.

The U.S. qualified three ice dance teams for the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. Although Belbin and Agosto are absent this week, they may still petition U.S. Figure Skating for a spot on the team.