Madison Shipman grew restless.
When the Tennessee Lady Vols shortstop returned to campus from holiday break, she was anticipating a long awaited reunion with the diamond.
Back to fielding ground balls, taking swings in the batting cage and hunting down pop flies.
But during the softball team's welcome back meeting on Jan. 7, they were told to report back to Lee Stadium wearing matching T-shirts, athletics shorts and tennis shoes.
Leave the softball pants, gloves and cleats at home.
"We knew something was up right then," Shipman said.
Twiddling her thumbs with the rest of her teammates in the film room, Shipman was expecting a surprise.
She certainty got one.
"We were all sitting there, trying to guess what was about to happen," Shipman said. "But
no one was even close. I mean, how could they be?"
After waiting a few moments, a man entered the room with eyes hidden behind the shadow of his tightly worn camouflage hat.
With an ice-cold gaze, he paused at the front of the room.
"Sit up straight!" he hollered.
Doing so, players traded questioning glances across the room.
"I first thought that this person looked kinda scary," senior outfielder Whitney Hammond said. "And looking back on it, he was."
That man was Jake MacDonald, a former U.S. Marine and the one revealing the surprise.
The UT coaching staff had set up a grueling two-day, team-building and leadership development program simply known as "The Program."
During which, all 19 Lady Vols trudged through two days of will-testing boot camp from Jan. 7-8.
"We wanted the girls to push themselves further than they ever imagined and grow as leaders," said Lady Vols co-head coach Karen Weekly.
And as Weekly firmly believes, timing is everything.
It is no coincidence that her team was preforming countless calisthenics, suicide runs, sprints with sand bags and lifting 100-pound logs just weeks before opening day. Weekly thought the taxing tests would be a perfect way to jumpstart the 2013 season.
Now, with opening day front and center as the Lady Vols take on Southern Utah on Thursday at 6 p.m. to open the Red Desert Classic in St. George, Utah, the team will get its first chance to see the fruits of its labor.
As a program, the Lady Vols are 799-339-2. An opening-day win would grant UT its 800th victory.
"Having done all that, I can go out and play a little softball game, no problem," Shipman said. "One thing we learned is to give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. We're going to take that mindset into the season."
With the Lady Vols returning all four of their 2012 All-Americans in Shipman, Lauren Gibson, Ellen Renfroe, and Raven Chavanne, Weekly said the key to the team's early-season success wouldn't lie on the performance of one of UT's prized returnees.
Rather, Weekly pointed to sophomore catcher Hannah Akamine.
Akamine, who boasts just 17 career starts, will replace graduated vocal leader Ashley Andrews behind the plate.
Weekly deemed the feat a "tall task."
"(Andrews) was so big for us," Weekly said. "Big shoes to fill, for sure. But we have a lot of confidence in Akamine."
Freshman Lexi Overstreet will also see time behind the plate.
"We have some talented catchers," Weekly said. "It's just a matter of them growing."
And growth is exactly what Akamine said she found during her two days in The Program.
Plunging into the pool at the Allan Jones Aquatic Center with the rest of her teammates at 5:30 a.m., Akamine was nervous about the team's final task.
"When he explained it to us, my jaw dropped," she said.
And the task was certainty daunting.
The military man explained that each team member would tread water with sweatshirts on, take off the sweatshirts, hold them above their heads for two seconds, switch sweatshirts with a teammate and put it on — doing it all in less than 45 seconds.
With some of her teammates not knowing how to swim, Akamine said something "clicked" during the activity.
"I'm not sure what it was, but (that activity) showed me I could step up and be a leader, too," she said. "(Andrews) showed me what it took to lead, but The Program made me realize I can do it — I can lead."
With her newfound mentality, Akamine said that opening day will serve as step one toward accomplishing both the team's and her personal goal.
"We are one heartbeat. We want to win the World Series. That's all that matters," she said. "But personally, I don't just want to fill (Andrews') shoes, I want to surpass them one game at a time."
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.