ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea talked about skating to “Take Me to Church” next season.

When their short program received disappointing scores in the fall, they decided to make the switch right away. They returned from a competition in Zagreb last month and got to work on it the next day.

The new music and choreography debuted Thursday, and Kayne and O’Shea skated the only clean program among the contenders to lead the U.S. Championships on a day full of falls and flubs.

“We started as soon as we could, and happy we did,” O’Shea said.

Kayne and O’Shea, who finished third last year to miss out on a trip to the world championships, skated last and scored 69.61 points. The defending champs, Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim, were second with 67.35 points after Knierim tumbled on their side-by-side triple salchows.

Marissa Castelli, who won two national titles with former partner Simon Shnapir, is in third with Mervin Tran at 64.12 points after she doubled their side-by-side triple salchows.

Earlier this season, Scimeca and Knierim became the first U.S. pairs team to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since 2007. But they struggled there, and Thursday’s short programs across the board were not an encouraging sign that American pairs skating can reverse its declines anytime soon.

“We’re disappointed in our program today,” Scimeca said. “But we’re optimistic and looking forward to the free program. It’s a close point difference between the top three, and we know if we throw down a great long we’ll be fine.”

The free skate is Saturday. The women’s short program takes place later Thursday.

Expression has been a weakness for O’Shea, and he sometimes practices programs by himself to focus only on that part. The new music helped, too, after they switched from the pasodoble of “Espana Cani.”

“Tarah’s always great with that kind of thing, and it’s something we’ve been working really hard on with me,” he said. “This music gets inside you, gives you that feeling.”

It also generated some negative reactions from fans who were upset with the choice of a song they viewed as anti-religion.

“I knew there was controversy around the piece, but when we said we were going to skate to it, I didn’t expect that backlash that came from it,” Kayne said. “I knew people wouldn’t like ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ but, OK, this was top two on the chart. A lot of people like this song.

“We love the piece. We thought other people would like it, too, and we hope it showed in our skating.”

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Teenager Polina Edmunds holds a large lead at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships after former winners Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold made major mistakes in their short programs.

The 17-year-old Edmunds, a 2014 Olympian, skated cleanly Thursday to score 70.19 points as she seeks her first national title. Gold is second with 62.50 points after she did just one rotation on a planned triple lutz and nearly crashed into the wall on an attempted triple-triple combination, settling for a double toe loop on the second jump.

Tyler Pierce, also 17, is third with 62.45 points. Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion, is fourth with 62.41 after falling on her triple-triple combination.

Earlier, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won the pairs short program.

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