Greg Marsden seated himself on a bench in the University of Utah's practice gym, leaned forward and said, "How can we go from the top of the world to the dumpster?"

It was an absurd statement, and he knew it better than anyone. He has pizzazz and punch on his side with seniors Hilarie Portell and Sonja Ahone, junior Michelle Hilse and sophomore Patti Massoels, but his team had recently suffered a third preseason injury to an all-America gymnast, and the start of the season was only days away.Nearby stood Melissa Marlowe, Salt Lake City's Olympian who was only two weeks into workouts with the Lady Utes. Marlowe heard that dumpster crack and wasn't about to let Marsden get away with it.

"What?" said Marlowe, incredulous, indignant and smiling competitively.

She's known Marsden all of her gymnastics life, and she isn't afraid of him any more than she is of Bela Karolyi.

Marsden didn't answer.

"What?" Marlowe said again, full of mock fight.

Still no answer.

Smiling, Marlowe let it drop. Her point had been registered.

Privately, Marsden's a big pessimist, says Lady Ute sports psychologist Dr. Keith Henschen, who happened into the gym a moment later.

It's Marsden's way of confronting Big Deals; he's often the same way before national championship meets, and his team has won six of those and finished no lower than second for nine years. The 1989 team could make it 10 in a row.

But it may not look like it at first. The next Big Deal is Monday night as the season opens in the Huntsman Center at 7:30 with Iowa and improved Utah State. In close succession are meets with Arizona State and defending NCAA champion Alabama, which had the best recruiting year of anyone. Utah could easily have losses by January's end.

Junior Kris Takahashi will probably miss at least Monday's opener with a sprained elbow. She was having her best preseason training ever, Marsden said. That's one all-America out. The other two, both sophomores, have had their problems longer. Kristi Pinnick had arthroscopic surgery three weeks ago, and Jessica Smith irritated a shoulder joint capsule when she fell on it.

Marlowe hadn't practiced from the end of the Olympics in September until New Year's week, and she hadn't expected to compete this soon, having only decided a few weeks ago to become a collegiate gymnast when she hasn't even graduated from high school yet. It's an early entrance program for good students, and the NCAA had to approve her gymnastics eligibility, a ruling that went in her favor twodays before Christmas.

"I hope I do OK," Marlowe said. "I'm sorry because girls in better shape are injured. I do think this is a little soon."

Marsden has been very high on his other two freshmen, Shelly Schaerrer of Orem and Wendy Shelley of Ohio.

He describes Shelley - a near walk-on - as "a raw talent; we've just got to refine and sophisticate it."

Shelley's mother is a Utah alum, and she and her daughter dropped in unannounced on Marsden a couple of years ago, asking if he'd keep Wendy in mind. "We took a bit of a chance," he says, "but we wound up with an extra scholarship.

"She's been a real pleasant surprise," he says, likening her to Ahone, who walked on, earned a scholarship as a specialist and is now looking at going all-around. "She's like Sonja, who just gets better and better."

Schaerrer is a one-time Olympic hopeful who trained for two years with former U.S. team Coach Don Peters at SCATS in Southern California. She was injured for those years and never really developed because of ankle and knee surgeries. "I'm finally getting ready," said Schaerrer.

Her score will be critical now. That's all right. "I still have something to prove," Schaerrer says. It's a trait she shares with many of the best Lady Utes of the past 10 years.

Marsden is sure Schaerrer will remind fans of one of their all-time favorites, Lisa Mitzel. "Shelly's doing a phenomenal job, and people will be real impressed with her," he says.

Portell and Massoels have trained strongly, said Marsden, while Ahone had "a phenomenal preseason" and Smith had looked good until her fall.

All of which means the Utes will just have to figure out a way to get through these first few meets knowing things should get better as the season progresses toward the national championships at Georgia in April

And it means the Utes had better watch out Monday. Every year the Aggies get better, and this year it's the largest, perhaps most talented Aggie team ever with eight possible all-arounds and a strong, six-member freshman class led by Sandy's Cami Card, who won the intrasquad all-around meet last week.

"Every time Ray (USU Coach Corn) comes down here I'm concerned," says Marsden, "because if you don't do a good job, Utah State will beat you."