Entering his third season, Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano is more confident then ever.
For a coach leading a program that hasn't been to the Southeastern Conference Tournament - forget an NCAA regional, super regional or the College World Series in Omaha - since 2007, that confidence speaks volumes.
"A lot of that has to do with the players we have, how they have developed and grown up," Serrano said Monday. "Also, how my staff recruited and I really feel for the first time that Tennessee baseball will be relevant again in the SEC.
"I am not promising an SEC championship; not promising national championships but not saying we can't do that."
That quest for relevance - and, eventually, a postseason berth - starts against Purdue at 4 p.m. Saturday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Sophomore Andrew Lee, who didn't pitch last year as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, will start on the mound in a game moved back a day due to this week's wintry weather.
The Vols will play a doubleheader Sunday - noon against Nebraska-Omaha and 4 p.m. against Purdue - and finish the season-opening weekend at 4 p.m. Monday against Omaha.
Why the confidence from Serrano?
"I definitely believe that the talent level is where it needs to be," he said. "We just need to grow up as a group.
"Continue to grow up, live through the adversity that we are going to go through, know how to handle the success we are going to have."
Much of that 'talent level' is returning talent.
Senior first basemen Scott Price, who led the team with a .361 batting average in 2013, is back. So is junior third basemen Will Maddox, who led the team in games played (51), at bats (207), runs (42) and RBIs (27).
"Scott Price to me is probably the best hitter in the SEC, and I'll say that bar none," Serrano said. "He's the top returning hitter (by average) that's returned in the SEC.
"I don't think he's getting enough credit from the national media and that's probably because he is on a lower tier team in the past in the SEC, but I see him every single day and I know what umpires told me last year when we played in the SEC. All the guy does is square up a baseball every time."
"Will is probably the hardest-nose player in the SEC; all you got to do is come out and watch a game or practice," Serrano said of Maddox. "He's going to be the dirtiest guy on the field, he's going to be a guy that you recognize because he has given everything that he has on each and every pitch."
Outfielders Christian Stewart and Vincent Jackson, a duo combined for five of the Vols' 13 home runs last year, are also back, as is shortstop A.J. Simcox, who drove in 26 as a freshman in 2013.
"We will probably rely on the offense early," Serrano said. "I think our offense is going to be a very strong weapon throughout the year.
" ... We have a lot of left-handed hitters, a lot of guys who can run the bases and guys who can hit the ball over the fence. I'm just very proud at how these guys have developed."
That offensive development isn't where Serrano's confidence comes from, though.
"Definitely pitching," he said. "Pitching wins championships. Defense wins championships. … It's going to start on the mound. The one consistent thing we have done as a program and for sure this year in the fall and workouts has been defense. We have good athletes on the field.
"We have interchangeable parts. We have depth now. If a guy goes down we have a lot of depth. We are at least two deep in every position and some are three and four deep."
Serrano signed a pair of Farragut products in second basemen Nick Senzel - "He's going to be a beast in this program," Serrano said - and his son, right-handed pitcher Kyle Serrano.
"There is still some inexperience, but the upside is tremendous with him," Serrano said of his son, who was drafted by the Colorado Rockies last spring. "He can go anywhere from 91 to 95, has a good curveball and has really developed a great changeup."
Other returners include sophomore catcher David Houser and left-handed pitcher Drake Owenby, a Powell High School product. Nathaniel Maggio, a left-handed hitter who plays first, signed with the Vols despite being drafted in the 32nd round by the Seattle Mariners.
"There was a plan in mind," Serrano said of his third-year rebuilding project. "They got their ears pinned back a little bit as freshmen.
"But I can no longer look across the field from our dugout and see a bunch of boys playing a bunch of men in the SEC. Our boys have grown into men in a very short order."
Now, with the playing field seemingly leveled, the next stage of that growth is getting back to Hoover, Ala. and the SEC Tournament - and getting Tennessee baseball back on the map.
"I get the national media outlets that have their rankings and I completely understand why we are not ranked to some extent," Serrano said, "but I guess it's just our duty to prove them wrong."