Christin Stewart rose from the stool sitting in front of his locker.
"One sec," he hollered over his shoulder.
The Tennessee freshman outfielder slowly began to punch in the combination to unlock the small cubby in his locker.
Reaching inside, he pulled out the remains of two wooden boards. Both were jaggedly splintered down the middle.
With tempered confidence, he puzzled the four pieces back together, revealing what was once written across the wood: "Next" and "Level."
"If you believe you can do something, you can," he said. "It's all about the right mindset and the whole team has it now."
But Stewart's mind-over-matter mentality didn't simply develop over night.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2013 college baseball season, which opens today with UT playing a four-game series at UNLV, second-year coach Dave Serrano brought in a mental conditioning coach to work with his youth-riddled roster.
"I saw huge strides in maturity and growth after the guys worked with that man," Serrano said.
That man was Brian Cain, a best-selling author, motivational speaker and sought-after proprietor of unconventional mental-development drills.
The high-energy instructor had the Vols breaking bricks, bending rebar on their chests and splitting boards with their skulls.
Continuously shouting his "dominate the day" mantra, which mirrors the baseball team's motto of "win the next pitch," Cain left an overwhelming impression on Stewart.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't know about this,' " Stewart said.
Last November, Stewart entered the team's meeting room to find not one, but two boards lying across a pair of cinder block stacks.
Tucking his chin to his chest just as he was instructed, Stewart closed his eyes and rammed his target.
The room erupted in cheers.
"I really think that was a big moment for this group," Stewart said. "It showed what we could accomplish. Like, it put all the practices and drills into perspective."
But unlike most teams, Tennessee's fall baseball practices weren't merely used to sharpen skills. They were trying to find an identity.
With 21 of the team's 32 players being newcomers, Stewart and the rest of his teammates are part of one of the most encompassing makeovers in program history.
The Vols return just three starters and bring in 18 freshmen.
"I'm just glad I know everyone's name by now — kidding," Serrano said.
While Serrano admits he has never encountered a challenge like this, he insists he isn't worried.
"This should be a year where I have the most anxiety about an opener," he said. "I've never been part of a team like this. But I have no anxiety. It's all eyes forward. This year and last year's team is like apples and oranges."
Indeed, last year's team has been dismantled.
For the good or bad, only 11 players return from a team that found itself right in the middle of the SEC standings midway through the season. A team that somehow managed wins over national powers South Carolina and Florida.
But in a blink of an eye, that all changed. The bottom fell out.
The Vols lost 16 of their last 18 games, meeting preseason expectations for a last-place finish in the SEC and missing the conference tournament for the fifth consecutive year.
"We peaked and we didn't have enough upside to support it," Serrano said. "I thought we could turn things around over night, but reality hit me right in between the eyes. Now I can see what we're striving for, though."
But what Tennessee is working toward this season can't be measured in marquee wins or series sweeps.
Serrano says the new-look Vols are trudging to simply meet their own potential.
"I've said one goal to the team and that's to reach our potential," Serrano said. "If that means SEC tournament, then I want to make it. … I won't know our potential until 30 or 40 games in."
With the SEC tournament expanding its field to 12 teams this season, Serrano said he has not spoken to his group about a trip to Hoover, Ala., come late May.
The Vols were picked on Tuesday to finish sixth in the SEC East by the league's 14 coaches.
However, what Serrano has spoken to his team about is progress.
"This team will have growing pains — trials and tribulations," Serrano said. "But I'll be shocked — not surprised — shocked if this team jumps out to a great start."
The one thing Serrano said he could guarantee is steady improvement.
Whether at-bat by at-bat, pitch by pitch or game by game, Serrano is certain his young squad will continue to improve.
"This team will get better as we go, not run out of gas. I can tell you that much," Serrano said. "It's about making progress each day, but the one thing I've never said is this team can't win. I came here to win, that's what I will do. It's a matter of when, not if."
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.
TENNESSEE 2013 BASEBALL SCHEDULE
Today: at UNLV, 9:05 p.m.; Saturday: at UNLV (2), 4:05 p.m.; Sunday: at UNLV, 4:05 p.m.; 22: vs. Arizona St., 5 p.m.; 23: vs. Arizona St., 1 p.m.; 24: vs. Arizona St., 1 p.m.; 26: vs. ETSU, 3 p.m.
USA Baseball Tournament—1: vs. Notre Dame, 6:30 p.m.; 2: vs. UMass, 3 p.m.; 3: vs. Virginia Tech, noon.
5: vs. Belmont, 6; 8: vs. Alcorn St., 6 p.m.; 9: vs. Alcorn St., noon; 10: vs. Alcorn St., noon; 12: vs. Western Kentucky, 6 p.m.; 13: vs. Western Kentucky, 6; 15: at Alabama*, 7:35 p.m.; 16: at Alabama*, 7:05 p.m.; 17: at Alabama*, 2:05 p.m.; 20: vs. Western Carolina, 6 p.m.; 22: vs. Missouri, 6 p.m.; 23: vs. Missouri*, 4; 24: vs. Missouri*, 2 p.m.; 26: vs. Tennessee Tech, 6 p.m.; 29: at Vanderbilt*, 7:30 p.m.; 30: at Vanderbilt*, 7 p.m.; 31: at Vanderbilt*, 2 p.m.
2: vs. Longwood, 3 p.m.; 5: vs. South Carolina*, 6 p.m.; 6: vs. South Carolina, 12:30 p.m.; 7: vs. South Carolina*, 2 p.m.; 9: at ETSU, 7:05 p.m.; 12: at Kentucky*, 6:30 p.m.; 13: at Kentucky*, 2 p.m.; 14: at Kentucky*, 1 p.m.
Hokie-Smokey Classic at Greeneville — 16: vs. Virginia Tech, 6 p.m.
19: vs. Ole Miss*, 6 p.m.; 20: vs. Ole Miss*, 4 p.m.; 21: vs. Ole Miss*, 2 p.m.; 23: at Middle Tennessee State, 7 p.m.; 26: at Florida*, 7 p.m.; 27: at Florida, 7 p.m.; 28: at Florida*, 1 p.m.; 30: vs. Middle Tennessee State, 6 p.m.
3: vs. Georgia*, 6 p.m.; 4: vs. Georgia*, 7 p.m.; 5: vs. Georgia*, 1 p.m.; 8: vs. Arkansas State, 6 p.m.; 10: at Arkansas*, 7:35 p.m.; 11: at Arkansas*, 7:05 p.m.; 12: at Arkansas*, 2:05 p.m.; 14: vs. Morehead State, 6 p.m.; 16: vs. Texas A&M*, 6 p.m.; 17: vs. Texas A&M*, 6 p.m.; 18: vs. Texas A&M*, 1 p.m.
* SEC games