The first time the University of Alabama's women's gymnastics team competed in the NCAA championships, in 1983 at Utah, Coach Sarah Patterson learned a lesson she hopes is helping her team cope with being the defending NCAA champion now.

In 1983, the Tide finished the championships believing it had clinched third place, only to have a beam routine redone and find out after the meet was over that Cal State-Fullerton had taken third by .2 point."We should have been thrilled to be there and to have finished fourth, but because we thought we'd been third and had it taken away," says Patterson, "it ruined it for that class.

"I always told myself I was never going to allow something to become a negative experience again."

For that reason, the 4-0 Tide tries to think of itself as an '89 contender, not the '88 champ.

"We've tried to put last year behind and start all over," says Patterson, whose team outscored Utah 190.05-189.50 on April 22 in the Huntsman Center to take its first NCAA title.

Back home in Tuscaloosa, the Tide was feted with a parade and "Alabama Gymnastics Day." At the first football game this season, before 75,000 fans, the Tide received national championship rings at halftime ceremonies.

"That signified the end of that year," declared Patterson.

"It seems we had to start defending it before we even got to enjoy it," she muses.

Patterson wants the present team to have its own identity. "I don't want any holdovers in case we were not to win again," she says. "It's the same philosophy we've had for the last five years in hopes of getting to a certain point on the last night of the year."

She says the days of five or six titles in a row, such as Utah won before taking second the last two seasons, are past. "There are too many good teams," she says, expecting challenges.

The first real test was passed Friday as Alabama beat Oklahoma 188.25-185.40.

Her team has suffered from the flu, and top all-arounder Marie Robbins, a junior, practiced one day last week.

Patterson doesn't expect Alabama to be at full strength tonight because of flu. "We're not throwing all of our tricks yet. It's a long season; I want to make it to the end," Patterson says.

Utah is in much the same position because of preseason injuries.

Sophomore Jessica Smith is still improving after smacking a shoulder into the apparatus in the preseason; she still won't perform on bars. Kristi Pinnick may add vaulting after December elbow surgery, and Kris Takahashi will probably perform on two events. Missy Marlowe, with another week of training, should go all-around along with Shelly Schaerrer, Hilarie Portell and Patti Massoels. All nine Utes are available.

"We're not 100 percent, but hopefully we can be respectable," says Coach Greg Marsden, whose team hit 189.35 in beating ASU last week.