There are only nine women, two of them hurt, on the Utah gymnastics team that is preparing to defend its NCAA title. Utah is definitely thin and must dodge further injuries.

But Coach Greg Marsden has a surprise for Utah fans and opponents alike: Missy Marlowe.Huh?

The Olympian, the best-known gymnast in Utah history - that's state of Utah as well as U. of Utah - is a surprise? Well, yes.

Marlowe, a junior, has impressed the coach. "It's really important to her again," Marsden says of gymnastics. "For whatever reason, she's really inspired."

The No. 1-ranked Utes open Monday in the Huntsman Center at 6:45 p.m. - moved up for TV - against No. 4 Oregon State, which scored 190.1 at Utah State in its opener Friday.

Sophomore Tracy Richard is the most-improved Ute, having doubled her potential from two events to all-around, but Marlowe is next. She's made as much progress between '90 and '91 as she did between her freshman and sophomore years when she shed weight and shook off burnout following the 1988 Olympics.

"This year already feels better than last year," says Marlowe, who realized she has only two years of gymnastics left after spending nearly a lifetime at it and decided to finish strong.

"I can't have any regrets. I have to go out on top," Marlowe declares.

Two years ago, she joined the Utes in January after finishing high school early despite the '88 Olympics. With no preseason training, Marlowe was only ready in two events. She hit both in the NCAA finals in Georgia, even if the team did finish fifth, its worst since 1978. In '90, she improved enough to be one of the national champs' top three all-arounders, with Shelly Schaerrer and Kristen Kenoyer, both back in '91.

Now, says Marsden, she's made that much progress again. "I hope so," she says. "I wasn't who I wanted to be last year."

She has new dismounts, her vault's more consistent, and she's ready to do two double-backs on floor exercise - to start the season. "She's more driven," Marsden says. "She looks great."

Actually, he says, the whole team's motivated, although it's a different atmosphere from last year's, when the embarrassed Utes were determined to come back from that fifth-place finish.

"I've really struggled to get a feel for how the girls are approaching this season," Marsden says. "They seem confident and seem like they expect to do well and be there, and they've been working very hard. It's just different.

"It's much quieter, not as verbal."

He can tell, though, that they all feel like Marlowe. "They are wanting desperately to be better than they were last year as individuals. That's the one thing I hear a lot in their self-evaluations," Marsden says.

"We really are trying to take it a notch higher," he says, noting that most will start out with as much difficulty as they had in the 1990 NCAA finals. "We didn't walk away with that thing, and everyone else is getting better," Marsden says. The Utes know that.

Most are veterans, which helps with such a small squad. There are only two freshmen: Jenny Donaldson, a Salt Laker who'll be limited by an ankle injury, and Missy Wells, a potential all-arounder from the prestigious Los Angeles SCATS club. Sophomore Meredith King sat out last season with an injury and sprained a hand Wednesday. She'll probably miss Monday's meet.

The experienced are senior Jessica Smith, juniors Marlowe and '90 MVP Schaerrer and sophomores Kenoyer, Richard and Amy Keller. Smith, Marlowe and Schaerrer are two-year All-Americans, and Kenoyer and Richard were All-America last year.

Schaerrer is the school all-around record-holder with 39.225, which bought her second place in the NCAA finals. She also holds the school floor mark, 9.9, and her under-pressure 9.85 as the final competitor on floor in the NCAAs won the title for Utah by .325.

Marlowe was the first Ute to break 39 with a best of 39.05, which was beaten by Schaerrer and Kenoyer. Kenoyer had the best freshman year in Ute history and finished third in the NCAA all-around at 39.2. Smith helped Utah to the NCAA-meet record score of 194.9 with 9.725 on vault, 9.775 on beam and 9.675 on floor. Keller is co-holder of the Ute vault record at 9.9.

Marsden expected to have a little bigger squad, but All-American Kristi Pinnick decided last summer she was tired of gymnastics and retired. It was too late to recruit a replacement.

"We may use five all-arounders," Marsden says of Monday's meet, naming Smith, Schaerrer, Marlowe, Kenoyer and Wells or Richard. "I'm real comfortable with that lineup. It's potentially stronger on balance beam than last year," he says. But replacing Pinnick's 9.9 vault will be tough.

The graduated Kris Takahashi is the only other Ute missing from last year's team that set NCAA-meet records for team and uneven bars scores, had the seven best scores in Ute history (topped by 194.95 in the regional, an NCAA record), the 10 best all-around scores in school history, set school records for team scores in each event and set or tied individual records in each event.