Utah's women's gymnastics team has overwhelmingly been No. 1 in the nation since Day 1 this season, but there's almost as much uncertainty tonight in the NCAA Midwest Regional at Tucson for the Utes as for statemates BYU and Utah State, who are the closest they've ever been to qualifying for their first trips to the NCAA Championships.

Brigham Young and Utah State are seeded behind Utah, second and third to the regional, which starts at 7 p.m. in Arizona's McKale Center. They are ranked sixth and seventh nationally.That's the best BYU's ever been thought of, and it's close to the best for the Aggies, too, but USU will be without senior all-arounder Barb Zahl, who dislocated both elbows in a training accident Monday.

(Utah also suffered a Monday mishap when freshman Missy Wells had an arthroscopic appendectomy.) Things are so close nationally, with fifth through seventh teams averaging 55 hundredths apart, that both BYU and USU have the potential of making the first rotation (top six) at nationals or of missing the 12-team national field altogether. It depends on scores in tonight's five region meets, which count two-thirds toward NCAA qualification with the Regional Qualifying Score counting the other third. Region champs get automatic berths.

Aggie Coach Ray Corn says, "There are nine schools looking for seven spots. If we hold our seed, we're in."

The Midwest Region is the toughest. Six of the seven teams are ranked among the nation's top 12. Nebraska would be 15th if it had reported its scores.

Defending NCAA champion Utah will certainly make it back to the NCAA finals at Tuscaloosa, Ala., April 19-20, but despite a stranglehold on NCAA statistics, the Utes aren't a lock on the first seed at the finals. That's their incentive tonight.

"If any of the three teams ranked below us (Georgia, Oregon State, Alabama) scores .5 or more than us at a regional meet, they'll go to nationals seeded ahead of us," says Ute Coach Greg Marsden.

Missy Marlowe is the only woman in NCAA history to have scored a perfect 10.0 on the road, that coming in a 193.9 team effort at Cal-Fullerton.

Marlowe holds the NCAA all-around record of 39.5 and is the No. 1-ranked all-arounder, but teammates Kristen Kenoyer, Shelly Schaerrer and Jessica Smith finished ahead of her in the last meet, the Western Athletic Conference Championships at Albuquerque, where Utah scored 194.4 despite it being finals week academically.

"We have a good rotation," says BYU Coach Brad Cattermole, whose team opens on uneven bars. "It's exactly what we do in practice every day. We do need to get off to a more vigorous start than we did at the WAC Championships, where we got some poor scores on bars."

BYU junior Korie Jackman (39.1) is the school all-around record-holder, but senior Marianne Squires, ranked 12th, is the Cougars' most consistent.

BYU started slowly but ended the season with five of six scores at 190.5 or better, including a 194.05.

USU's seed is helpful. The Ags start with byes on two of the first three rotations, when scores are low. They open on beam in the second rotation, and, unlike past years, their beam team is consistent.

The Zahl injury is not a death blow to Ag hopes. "Frankly, I don't think so," Corn says. "We have a group of girls who are very well focused. This is where we call on our depth."

Freshman Haley Houtchens could step in for Zahl in three events, and senior Julie Ryan go all-around. The Ags' best all-arounders are juniors Brenda Scholl (38.55) and Michele Bugbee (38.6).