Three Sundays ago, a woman named Sammie Trepagnier walked to the front of a motel ballroom beside the Baltimore Beltway. She stood back from the microphone to let the suspense build a little. Then she leaned forward and declared that Dara Jones had won -- and that Nevada June Wease, and two dozen others, hadn't.

Dara Jones beamed. Her mother, Debora, cried, "because I didn't know what else to do." Her father, Dean, an automobile assembly-line worker, hugged them both with joy.

Nevada June Wease cried, too, out of pain and frustration. But her mother, Dorothy, and father, Ronald, a contractor, were too wrought up to weep. They railed a little at the unfairness of it all, packed up their daughter and stalked out, vowing never to go through anything like this again.

Such is life on the baby beauty pageant circuit -- and such were the final moments of the Tiny Miss Maryland Contest 1979.

This is the story of one little girl who won and another who lost -- at an age when many would say children are too young to be doing either.

The contest the two girls entered (on the basis of an ad both mothers saw in TV Guide magazine) is named with cold-eyed accuracy. All Tiny Miss contestants are either two or three years old.

That means that, to enter the swimsuit competition, many Tiny Misses had to wriggle their suits on over diapers.

The winner is judged on the basis of beauty, personality, overall appearance and what she looks like in a bathing suit, a sports outfit and a formal dress, according to the official rules. The winners of the 30 state pageants (49 are promised for next year) will attend the national Tiny Miss America finals in December at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Virginia's Tiny Miss contest is tentatively scheduled for mid-October in Fredericksburg. No District of Columbia contest is scheduled.

The national Tiny Miss winner gets a list of prizes that may literally be longer than her arm. The headliners are a promotional trip to Europe and the Bahamas, a $1,000 savings bond, a color television set and diamond jewelry.

Dara Jones, whom her mother calls "the prettiest 3-year-old in all of Port Deposit, Md.," was, at 3 1/2, one of the oldest contestants in this year's pageant.

Nevada June Wease, of Wheaton, Md., was one of the youngest. She was two on June 1.

The age difference -- and the crankiness, or lack of it, that goes with it -- may have been what separated Dara from Nevada June. Looks and style certainly didn't.

Both girls are startingly, and similarly, beautiful. Both have blond hair, blue eyes, wide smiles and keen noses for the limelight.

Both have cover-girl complexions and perky mannerisms. Both are already incurable flirts. Both have mothers who are blonds themselves but who say they never entered, much less won, anything like the Tiny Miss contest.

The mothers vigorously deny "living through" their daughters. Both say they entered them in the Tiny Miss contest because they hoped to do something memorable for the family photo album, not the family bank account.

"If I ever saw danger like that,: said 31-year-old Dorothy Wease, "I'd stop. Cold."

"I strive for perfection, and I like challenges," said 22-year-old Debora Jones. "And I sometimes wondered what I had gotten us into. But they let Dara be herself. I don't think there was pressure."

Both mothers raised the $75 entry fee by selling $1 "booster pledges" to family, friends, whomever. Even the neighborhood gas station chipped in to Nevada June's campaign.

Both mothers vigorously deny coaching their daughters. Both doubted that other children in the family (two other Weases, one other Jones) had been adversely affected by the contest. And both praised the contest for not requiring 2- and 3-year-olds to display a talent.

"That really would have been too much," said Dorothy Wease.

These and other criticisms are hardly new to Sammie Trepagnier, the 22-year-old former Louisiana beauty pageant contestant who is president of Baby Miss America Pageants, Inc.

"They get on me for the competition, for example, all the time," said Trepagnier, in a telephone interview from Tiny Miss headquarters in Metairie, La.

"But these kids have competition all the way through life, right? If we instill in these children the good spirit of true competition, they'll know what's going on later.

"And they get on me for taste. Let me tell you something: I have seen a pageant for everything you can imagine. I have seen a Wheelchair Miss America. I have seen a baby wearing a string bikini. When you see false eyelashes, it's not a baby contest anymore.

"All I'm looking for is beautiful children. . . . If the parents come with the right attitude, those kids go home okay. But I've had parents threaten to blow up the motel if their kid loses. You can't blame me for that."

As for the money, "I'm in business to make money, just like you are, just like McDonald's is."

What was her company's gross last year? "I don't know."

You don't know? "I don't know,"

Did you pay income tax? "Yes." And you still don't know? "No." Did your company make money? "Oh, yes -- but I don't live in a house like Danny Thomas."

And why has she run baby pageants for the last two years? "Because the pageants bring families together," Trepagnier said.

That's clearly so in the case of the Joneses. Their home if festooned with the trophies that Dara won, and photos of her wining them.

"This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to the family," said Debora Jones.

But not for the Weases.

"I still don't understand why she lost," said Dorothy Wease. "I know I'm the mother, but 'i think she was prettier than the rest. She'll always be pretty, too, but I'll always be a little disappointed."