Don't look now, but the Utes may be gaining.

After years of being the understaffed, underfunded underdogs, things appear to be changing. The Utes' record is still deplorable: 7-15. But for one of the few times in the last two decades they are playing good teams close. Second-year coach Rick Sofield, an evangelical proponent of the power of positive thinking, is slowly changing the way the Utes think of themselves.Case in point: Though the Utes are only 7-15 this season, the wins, and many of the losses, have been impressive. The story on the Utes is they haven't been getting blown out. They lost just 11-9 to BYU in the Mesquite tournament in early March; they beat up NAIA power Grand Canyon 9-2 - something BYU couldn't do; they lost 6-5 to strong UNLV, 7-6 to a Long Beach State and 5-2 to Loyola Marymount - all exceptional teams.

The big news, of course, came last weekend. Utah opened its WAC season by actually splitting a twinbill on the road against San Diego State. The two losses were both 3-2 games.

"We got off the bus shaking our heads and saying we should have won the other two," said Sofild. "I don't know when the last time was that a Utah team was thinking that."

Utah opens its home season today and Sunday with a pair of noon doubleheaders against Northern Colorado.

Evidence seems to be mounting that Sofield, who played in the major leagues for the Minnesota Twins, is truly making strides. The team ERA, which was in double figures most of last year, has dropped dramatically - to 7.90.

Sofield took a look at his recruiting budget and declared his bread-and-butter would be local players. He revamped the pitching staff, building it around sophomore Craig Sudbury, a former Cyprus High star. Then he added Don Emery, a Brighton High product who had been playing at College of Southern Idaho, and freshman Paul Simmons from Hillcrest High. He threw in Californian Paul Barton, a crossover football quarterback, and things began to take shape.

Sudbury has led the way with 35 innings pitched and a 3-3 record. His ERA is 7.39, which would have qualified him as one of the top two pitchers on the team last year. Emery's ERA in 28 innings is 6.03 and Simmons' is 6.49.

Barton no-hit San Diego State for 4 1/2 innings."We've got some changes," says Sofield.

At the plate the main man is, again, Lance Madsen, a product of East High. Madsen is terrorizing pitchers, hitting .442 with six homers, both high on the team. "He's as good a player as there is in America," says Sofield.

Despite the changes, Sofield says he isn't letting up. "If we're losing, I'm not satisfied," says Sofield. "But we're losing close games to quality people, and that means we're in the ballpark."