Defending champ Bradie Tennell leads ladies’ short program at U.S. Championships

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DETROIT – The champ held off the phenom.

With her best short program of an inconsistent season, a performance that got stronger as it went along, defending champion Bradie Tennell took command of the U.S. Championships on Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena.

“There have been bright spots and not so bright spots,” Tennell said of her season leading up to nationals. “I’m just cranking away at my programs and the daily grind.”

She ground through the first part of this one, then took flight in the second half, flying unfettered across the ice and still remaining in full control of her final two jumps and two spins.

The result was a flawless 2-minutes, 50 seconds and 76.60 points, giving Tennell, 20, a lead of 2.71 points over Alysa Liu, the 13-year-old expected to take command of U.S. women’s skating in the near future.

“I just enjoyed my performance,” Tennell said. “There really wasn’t thinking involved. I just kind of went on autopilot and got into the zone.”

Results: Ladies’ short program

Liu, last season’s U.S. junior champion, became the first woman to land a triple Axel in the short program at nationals and drew a standing ovation after a program in which the only flaw was an underrotated second jump in her triple Lutz, triple toe combination.

The 4-foot, 7-inch Liu was not overwhelmed by the big stage but was overcome by how well she handled it.  She burst into tears before taking her bows.

“I was really happy,” Liu said of her emotional outpouring.

MORE: How to watch U.S. Championships

Mariah Bell, considered a title contender for the first time in her career, needed perfection to beat Liu, who piled up 10.17 of her 73.89 points for the triple Axel. Bell fell just short, underrotating the triple toe loop in her Lutz-toe combination to finish with 70.30.

“I’m pretty disappointed in myself about the combo,” Bell said.  “It hasn’t come together yet this season.  I’m being held back by the unders [under-rotations].”

The top two after Friday’s free skate will be likely go to Worlds – unless one of them is Liu, who is age ineligible not only for senior worlds until the 2021-22 season but for junior worlds until next season.

MORE: Get to know Alysa Liu

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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