It's been 11 years since Brigham Young attended the national women's gymnastics championships as a team. After 1980, the Cougars voluntarily got less competitive until Brad and Dawn Cattermole were brought in to coach them back to life three and a half seasons ago.

Brad Cattermole says it seems like it's taken a long time to get to this first NCAA berth, but, at the same time, he admits, "We're kind of a Cinderella team."Indeed, when gymnastics was beginning its season in January, Cattermole predicted this mostly veteran team with one dramatic addition, freshman Christy McAdams, would be only a little better than the '90 Cougars, who drummed themselves out of the postseason by placing last in the NCAA regional.

Instead, BYU rose steadily to a school-record No. 6 final national ranking and current No. 9 seed (based mainly on regional score) and to the NCAA finals Friday at Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The reasons for BYU's ascent: - The '90 team was pretty good until last-month injuries, so the jump may be more of a continuation than it looks.

- The Cougar gymnasts grew close. "This team gets along so well. They like being with each other," says Cattermole. "I've had some close teams, but none as close as this team."

- The talent level matured to the point that Catter

mole started the season cautiously, watering back routines and gradually upgrading to avoid injuries. The Cougs started at 187s but ended with six of their last seven scores at 190.5 or better including a school-record 194.05 at home and 193.55 away.

Patience was the coaching staff's idea. The athletes? "Instead of me running around telling the girls they need to upgrade, they're telling me. They're pushing each other, saying, `I want to hold up my end of the bargain,' " Cattermole says. "It's gotten to where nobody wants to let anybody down."

There are other changes. Like Utah State, the Cougars are developing a professional polish to their routines. And Utah Coach Greg Marsden sees BYU "doing a better job not worrying about who they're up against - just go out and do your job." Marsden says it doesn't matter what another team does, only what your team does: why watch and get nervous?

Now BYU must learn to cope with the byes in postseason competition. At the regional, because there were seven teams, each had three byes - idle time when anxiety breeds. There are two byes at nationals, which are divided into two six-team sessions.

BYU started the Midwest Regional with 48.05 on bars,

then had a bye. "It's hard to keep your concentration," Cattermole found. The Cougs went to beam and had a meet-low 46.775. "I got them together and said, `You've got two events left to prove to the judges you belong,' " says Cattermole. They did.

Friday will be tougher. "I don't think we're yet the caliber of Utah, Georgia, Oregon State or Alabama - butfrom there we can compete with anybody. Realistic best is fifth or sixth," Cattermole says. "We have as realistic a chance of coming out 12th," he adds.

BYU is in the early session when scores are lower but there's less pressure. "We're real happy being in the second session at this point of our team's progress. If we can come out with a higher place (than ninth) and get an all-American or two, that would be about as good as we could do," he says.

Senior Marianne Squires, junior Korie Jackman and freshman McAdams have the best chances to advance to individual-event finals on Saturday.

Squires, a two-event U.S. Gymnastics Federation Junior Olympic champion, aimed the Cougs toward nationals when she signed on out of Highland (American Fork). She finished the '91 regular season ranked 12th in all-around.

Then Jackman came to the program from Springville and won the conference all-around. Jackman is BYU's only NCAA-finals experienced gymnast (47th all-around in 1989).

McAdams, of Ohio, helped BYU take the next step. She was nationally ranked in vaulting and floor exercise and was third in regional floor exercise.