Fantasy skating preview: U.S. Championships
Other than Davis and White, no locks in San Jose maelstrom
|Max Aaron impressed Tara Wellman by blowing away the competition at sectionals. (Getty Images)|
Ladies medals up for grabs
With Rachael Flatt struggling to regain her form, Mirai Nagasu a bit of a question mark with consistency and Alissa Czisny coming off of injury, Ashley Wagner has staked her claim to the American throne. However, that puts a lot of pressure on her to skate perfectly. While she has had exceptionally strong programs this year, they don't match the components of a clean Czisny. Plus, Alissa learned a lot last season, is back to 100 percent and is confident. As hard as it is to choose, I'm sticking with Czisny.
We have another heated battle on our hands! Four of the girls have season-best scores in the 150 range. Kiri Baga is coming back off of injury and could be a factor, too. Between Vanessa Lam, Yasmin Siraj and Samantha Cesario, it could be tight. Don't forget Caroline Zhang, who won in Graz at the Ice Challenge in November and put up a 160+ at sectionals. Lam is coming off of third- and first-place finishes in her Junior Grand Prix events, plus a spot at the Final. She impressed me last year, making it to the final warm-up group at nationals. She's my pick in this group.
Men looking to regain control
This will be an exciting event. So much talent in one group! With Richard Dornbush and Ross Miner coming off of medals last year, they'll be in the mix, and with Adam Rippon and Jeremy Abbott looking to get back to the podium, they'll be charging. Still, if Abbott skates anything close to what he's capable of, he should take his title back.
This will be another tough one, with six of eight skaters posting 200+ scores this season. Stephen Carriere is a guy with all the goods, but so is Keegan Messing (Cup of Nice gold medalist). Jonathan Cassar and Douglas Razzano are favorites of mine, but Max Aaron may just steal the show. He blew the field away with a 221.21 at sectionals and a 204+ at Nebelhorn. I would not be surprised if it comes down to Carriere and Aaron here. This time around, I'm going with Aaron.
Initially, there was some confusion and I overlooked recently crowned Junior Grand Prix Final champion Jason Brown in this group. While Scott Dyer and Wesley Campbell certainly match up well based on the two-point differential in their sectionals scores, Brown won the JGPF with 208+ overall, easily setting him up to win this group. Now, there is a significant change in the demands of a senior-level program, not the least of which is stamina. But, Brown has the skill to acclimate quickly to the senior event. Nationals is known for its surprises, but Brown should win this group after all.
Pairs skating with something to prove
This could come down to a battle of experience vs. potential. The veterans, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, look for their first national title, but Caydee Denney and John Coughlin will try to finish off their debut season with an impressive, somewhat unexpected title ... and a trip to worlds. Evora and Ladwig have struggled at times this season, but they love to compete at nationals. Strong skates in both the short and the long -- including more advanced pairs elements than a young team will attempt -- should give them the gold.
Ashley Cain and Josh Reagan came in strong last year at their first nationals. However, it's Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin who have the best scores in this group. They have the elements; it's just a matter of staying upright. They're my "B" pick.
Three of these teams (Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, Kloe Bautista and Tyler Harris, and Alexa Scimeca and Ivan Dimitrov) competed head to head at Eastern Sectionals. It was Zhang and Bartholomay who came out on top by more than seven points. They were forced to withdraw from last year's championships, so hopefully this year will go according to plan. With the unpredictability of inexperience very much in play, they are my pick.
Dancers battle deep field
It's no secret that this is Meryl Davis and Charlie White's competition to lose. And that would take something quite dramatic. Their closest competitors, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, haven't come anywhere close to Davis and White's scores this season. While the reigning world champs can't look past San Jose, they shouldn't have much competition.
With so many new teams on the scene, it's sometimes hard to predict. However, Madison Chock and Evan Bates have impressed as the top "new team." They'll face some competition from Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. And don't forget about Lynn Kreingkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt. They've shown glimpses of something special, too. But I say it's Chock and Bates in Pool B.
In the increasingly deep ice dancing field, there are certainly some up-and-comers to keep an eye on. Qualifying third and fourth in their respective sectionals are Ginna Hoptman and Pavel Filchenkov, and Brittany Schmucker and Adam Munday. Hoptman and Filchenkov have the better score by four points. Without much experience to convince me otherwise, I'm picking Ginna and Pavel in Pool C.
As always, there is a lot on the line in San Jose, with elusive worlds berths to be earned. The pressure of nationals is enormous; that's why it's one of my favorite competitions of the year. The excitement is building and I, for one, can't wait!