Sixteen-year University of Utah Coach Greg Marsden says he's never seen a women's gymnastics team overcome as much adversity as Utah State's has this season and still qualify for the national championships.

The Aggies go to the NCAA Championships in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday (they leave Tuesday) as the 11th seed in a 12-team field despite losing six gymnasts over the season, including two of their best all-arounders and a top specialist for the season. All-arounder Barb Zahl was lost the Monday before the NCAA Regional, the qualifying meet for nationals, to two dislocated elbows, but the Aggies persevered."If anybody deserved to make it, they did," says Brigham Young Coach Brad Cattermole, whose club

joins USU in their NCAA finals debuts. Cattermole says USU Coach Ray Corn ought be NCAA coach of the year, and he'll push for that.

"I was really impressed," adds Marsden, noting USU's qualification at the regional without Zahl. "They didn't bellyache. They just accepted it."

And that's been the difference in USU this season: a steely determination pervades following yet another near-miss for NCAAs last season - .1 point shy.

"After last season, getting so close," says Zahl, a senior, her arms in casts pointing straight out following successful surgery and holding the phone with her shoulder, "it wasn't just a few who wanted to go to nationals. It was everybody. So many stayed around through the summer to work out."

But, one by one, injuries or illness struck. First it was No. 1 all-arounder Stephanie Green, a senior out for the season in the first week. At midseason, specialist Missy Edson left with what her father, a doctor, said was chronic fatigue syndrome. Then Zahl. In between, other problems.

Says Zahl, "They're all saying, `There's nothing we can do about it, and we're still a really good team, and we don't necessarily need this person.' "It's not just getting through this - they will. There's no question," says Zahl.

"We proved there was a lot more determination with three top team members being out," says junior Cami Card, whose shoulder and ankle problems held her to one event, beam. "We were so close the last two years, we realized, `Let's open the door all the way.' " Utah State was ranked as high as fifth in the nation, a school record, one of 19 school records shattered this season. Going into the regional last week they were still seventh.

"At that point," says junior Michele Bugbee, USU's best regional (11th) all-arounder, "we just had to block it out and pull together as a team and do what we could do."

They started the regional 6-for-6 on balance beam, the event that always derailed them in past regionals. "When I saw we had beaten Arizona on beam . . . with the personalities on this team, I knew they were not going to let it get away," says Corn.

He traces the Ags' jump from a team ranked in the 'teens to one in the top five to last year's near miss. Most veterans stayed on their own in Logan to work out over the summer.

They said there would be no excuses. They adopted a new performing attitude. They would attain the appearance that top teams have, the elegance, the line, the execution. The professionalism, Corn says. "That's what we've been trying to create all year is a look.

"Utah, Alabama and Georgia proved you can fall and still score 9.25," Corn notes. Why? The look of success. The Aggies seem to have gotten it, and that boosted their confidence.

Cache Valley noticed. Corn is "overwhelmed" at the cards and congratulatory calls of the past week.

Card was recognized and congratulated in the grocery store. "We've done it through the hard times with fan and community support," she says.

Like BYU, the Ags have no pretension of winning Friday's team championship. Alabama, Utah, Georgia and Oregon State will probably fight for that. "To improve on our seed even one notch," says Corn, "would make nationals successful."

"The team goal," asserts Card, "is to win the session we're in."