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U.S. Nationals: McLaughlin and Brubaker Grab Lead

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker put down a strong program last night to take the lead in the pairs discipline at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn. The young team strung together tough elements with a strong artistic presentation while making just a minor mistake.

Meanwhile two other veteran pairs teams — two-time U.S. champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, Jr. and reigning champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski — sat in second and third place, respectively.

Castile and Okolski spent the fall on the sideline due to injury (to Castile’s leg and foot). Inoue and Baldwin chose to sit out the Grand Prix Series and instead did several shows.

While some might see McLaughlin and Brubaker’s placement in the short as an upset of sorts, those following the sport this season probably are not surprised to see this team in a tight race for the top spot on the podium. In only their second season as a team, McLaughlin and Brubaker got experience on the international circuit this fall and clocked valuable mileage on their two programs.

Last year’s World junior champions, Mclaughlin and Brubaker won two medals on the senior Grand Prix circuit in the fall and earned a berth in the GP Final. They pulled out of that competition due to an injury (Brubaker’s inflamed foot).

Last year’s bronze medalists, Naomi Nari Nam and Themi Leftheris, also missed the Grand Prix Series due to injury (Nam had hip surgery in August). They placed fourth last night.

McLaughlin and Brubaker compiled a score of 66.54 points and were 1.3-points ahead of Inoue and Baldwin, last year’s U.S. silver medalist, going into Saturday's free skate.

"We don't go anywhere to skate for second," Brubaker said.

The two landed a solid throw triple Salchow and their lifts were secure. They did have a few errors. McLaughlin put her hand down on their side-by-side triple Salchows and their side-by-side combination spin was out of synch.

However, their level of difficulty was higher than Inoue and Baldwin who landed side-by-side double Axels and performed a double twist. Their footwork sequence was impressive and their side-by-side spins were the best of the night.

Castile and Okolski were 7.59 points behind the leaders in third. They had a costly error: He fell on their side-by-side double Axels.

Whatever happens Saturday, McLaughlin and Brubaker are finished for the competitive season. At 15 (her birthday is Sept. 25) she is too young for the senior World Championships. He is 21 (his birthhday is June 21) and missed the cutoff for the World Junior Championships by less than two weeks.

After the original dance, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto led training mates Meryl Davis and Charlie White by three points with a score of 106.15 to Davis and White’s 103.28..

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre are in third with a total of 94.09 points.