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Higuchi in elite class with Mao after result at nationals

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Lost in the glare of the spotlight that shone on Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and his record run and the return of three-time world champ Mao Asada at the recent Japan nationals was the second-place finish of junior sensation Wakaba Higuchi.

Higuchi, who turned 15 on Jan. 2, made the podium at the senior nationals for the second straight year. She was third behind Satoko Miyahara and Rika Hongo in Nagano in 2014, and moved up a spot in Sapporo last month, coming in second behind Miyahara and ahead of Mao.

Higuchi became the first female junior skater to twice make the podium at the Japan senior nationals since Mao in 2004 and 2005.

The result was significant in that Higuchi came into this season with high expectations but failed to make the Junior Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, last month after struggling through the JGP campaign.

The Tokyo native was second at the JGP in Zagreb and a disappointing fifth in Linz, Austria. The latter result cost her a second straight trip to the JGP Final. Higuchi came in third at last season’s JGP in Barcelona.

Higuchi began to turn it around at the Japan Junior Championships in November in Ibaraki Prefecture, where she captured her second consecutive Japan junior crown. While that was impressive, no one could predict how the ninth grader would do against better competition at the senior nationals.

To her credit, Higuchi did not flinch and put together both impressive short and free programs at Makomanai Ice Arena. Her joyful performance to “Mambo Fantasy” in the short program, for which she received a season-best score of 67.48 was noteworthy and set the stage for her to collect a medal for the second year in a row.

Higuchi detailed her feelings about her showing at the nationals in Japanese in a post on Twitter after the competition. Here is a translation of her thoughts:

“I am very happy to have been able to perform the free program (which I feel I still have to work on) at the All-Japan competition.

“It was a very different experience to last year, plus I found some issues I need to tackle.

“I was able to skate comfortably — maybe, partly because it wasn’t my first time skating at the All-Japan,” Higuchi noted.

“Looking back this year, there were periods when things were tougher than I had imagined it could be, but I’m glad I was able to be in shape when all the important competitions took place around the latter half of the season.

“Your cheers and support were a big help to me. Thank you very much.

“There are many tournaments and shows right from the start of the New Year.”

In conclusion, Higuchi wrote, “I’ll do my best to achieve good results at the National Sports Festival, All-Japan Junior High and World Junior tournaments, so please give me your support!

“Thank you.”

Higuchi claimed the bronze medal at last season’s world juniors and is a good bet to be on the medal stand again at the event this season in Hungary in March.

Repeat champions: Miyahara was sublime on the way to capturing her second straight national title, winning by more than 17 points over Higuchi. The world silver medalist won both the short program and free skate.

Exuding the elegance that has come to highlight her skating for several years now, the 17-year-old Miyahara was smooth as silk on the way to victory. Her pull spin and step sequence were especially outstanding.

Mao struggled with her triple axel in both programs and settled for third. Taking into account that she was out of action for a full season, the result can’t be considered poor, but the media and fans expect greatness from Mao every time out.

As they stood on the medal stand I could not help but wondering what Mao was thinking as she looked at Higuchi. Ten years earlier Mao took second place as a junior ahead of Shizuka Arakawa in third at the senior nationals (where Fumie Suguri won) in 2005.

It marked one of three times that season that Mao finished ahead of Arakawa. Two months later Arakawa won the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games that Mao was too young to enter.

Hanyu cruised to his fourth consecutive national title in Hokkaido, but was unable to set world records for the third consecutive competition. He still finished comfortably ahead of Shoma Uno by more than 19 points.

Ice Time thinks fatigue may have played a part in Hanyu’s performance. Trying to replicate what he achieved at the NHK Trophy and Grand Prix Final for the third time in a month was not going to be easy. Hanyu’s effort was admirable nevertheless.

Lineups confirmed: With Higuchi still being too young to compete at the senior worlds, Rika Hongo, who finished fourth in Sapporo, will join Miyahara and Mao on the team for Boston in March.

Hanyu and Uno will be tasked with trying to restore Japan’s three spots for men at the 2017 worlds in Helsinki. Japan lost one of its places for this season’s worlds due in part to the untimely retirement of Tatsuki Machida at last season’s nationals.

For Japan to secure three places at the 2017 worlds, Hanyu and Uno must finish be a combined 13th or better in Boston. With Hanyu healthy this season, the mission should be much easier to accomplish.

The JSF announced the teams for the senior worlds, Four Continents and junior worlds after the competition had concluded at nationals. They are as follows:

World Championships

Boston (March 28-April 3)

Men: Hanyu, Uno

Women: Miyahara, Mao, Hongo

Pairs: Sumire Suto/Francis Boudreau-Audet

Four Continents

Taipei (Feb. 9-14)

Men: Uno, Takahito Mura, Keiji Tanaka

Women: Miyahara, Mao, Hongo

Pairs: Suto/Boudreau-Audet

Ice Dance: Kana Muramoto/Chris Reed, Emi Hirai/Marien de la Asuncion

World Junior Championships Debrecen, Hungary (March 14-20)

Men: Sota Yamamoto, Shu Nakamura, Daichi Miyata

Women: Higuchi, Yuna Shiraiwa, Marin Honda

Ice Dance: Rikako Fukase/Aru Tateno

Grand Prix Final returns: Multiple media outlets have reported that the ISU will award the 2017 Grand Prix Final to Japan. The event will be especially important that season as it will come just a couple of months before the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

The 2017 GP Final will mark the fifth time Japan has been chosen to host the prestigious competition. Fukuoka hosted the 2013 GP Final shortly before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The 2016 GP Final will be contested in Marseille, France.