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kyleniblett

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STARKVILLE, Miss. - New head softball coach Vann Stuedeman announced one of the most anticipated and challenging schedules in school history Wednesday, featuring battles against 14 NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago.

The new era of Bulldog softball is highlighted by home games against two Southeastern Conference squads that advanced to the 2011 Women's College World Series.

"It is going to be an absolute honor to put on the maroon and white and lead the Bulldog softball team this spring," Stuedeman said. "We look to ignite the city of Starkville and the people of our state with a challenging home schedule."

The most compelling series of the season comes March 30-April 1, as Stuedeman leads her Dawgs at home against Alabama, where she spent the last 11 years helping guide the Crimson Tide to three SEC titles and six WCWS appearances. Alabama isn't the only intriguing conference opponent the Maroon and White will host, as 2011 WCWS runner-up Florida comes to town March 7 for a rare doubleheader midweek treat.

In addition to Alabama and Florida, 2011 NCAA Tournament teams Kentucky (April 20-22), Tennessee (March 23-25) and Georgia (March 9-11) also come to the friendly confines of the MSU Softball Stadium for conference action. Assistant coach Alan Reach is no stranger to the Bulldogs from Athens, as he served as an assistant coach for Georgia's 2004 squad that went 55-17.

Away from Starkville, the conference schedule contains no easy wins, as State will travel to 2011 NCAA Tournament squads LSU March 16-18 and Auburn to close out the regular season May 4-6. The Bulldogs play their first SEC road doubleheader during spring break at South Carolina March 13, while also making voyages up north to take on Arkansas (April 6-8) and in-state rival Ole Miss (April 13-15).

"There is not a more competitive conference in all of collegiate softball than the SEC," Stuedeman explained. "Our athletes know that it's going to be as tough as it's ever been, but they accept the size of that mountain and dare to climb it."

Before Stuedeman can get her team to conference play, a demanding February schedule greets the new era of Bulldog softball. Following the season opener at South Alabama on Feb. 9, the Bulldogs stay the night and begin a three-day tournament at USA Feb. 10-12, which includes a game against a Memphis Tigers' squad that made the Big Dance last season.

The Dawgs stay in Alabama Feb. 14 to play at Samford, serving as a homecoming of sorts for Birmingham natives Stuedeman, Reach, senior Lindsey Dunlap, junior Jessica Cooley and sophomore Shana Sherrod.

Starkville will finally get a chance to welcome in the new regime Feb. 17-19 at the annual Bulldog Round Robin, which features SIUE and Mississippi Valley State.

Sisters Brittany and Briana Bell, along with freshman Erika Gaul, will then bring their teammates to their native Sunshine State Feb. 24-26, for the NFCA Leadoff Classic at the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex in Clearwater, Fla. The Dawgs won't have time for the beach however, as games await against 2011 NCAA teams Louisiana-Lafayette (Feb. 24), Georgia Tech (Feb. 25), DePaul (Feb. 25) and Michigan (Feb. 26). The team will also face local favorite South Florida on Feb. 24.

Other highlights from the 2012 tilt include a home-and-home series with NCAA Regional squad Jackson State (Feb. 29 in Jackson, April 10 in Starkville), the Bulldog Classic March 2-4 featuring Eastern Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Columbia and Samford, and a March 21 date with NCAA tourney squad UAB, the alma mater of assistant coach Beth Mullins. An All-Conference USA performer with the Blazers (2001-04), Mullins helped break 15 individual and team offensive records as an assistant coach there following her playing days, helping them to their first NCAA Regional appearance.

All good things must come to an end, as Senior Day will wrap up the 2012 home season on April 28 with a doubleheader against Tennessee Tech at 1 p.m. On that date, the program will honor current seniors Brittany Bell, Dunlap, Misty Flesher, Brittany Gates and Ka'ili Smith for their contributions to Bulldog softball.

In advance of the 2012 season, State looks to finish its fall exhibition season with a perfect record this Friday and Saturday. The Bulldogs (3-0) make their only out-of-state appearance of their fall exhibition schedule Friday in Irondale, Ala. (Birmingham area), for a 6 p.m. contest against Jacksonville State at the Shea Brothers Softball Complex. One day later in Starkville, MSU plays its only home date of the fall schedule - a 1 p.m. doubleheader against in-state foe Southern Miss. Whit Waide will throw out the first pitch, while two free tickets to the Mississippi State vs. Alabama football game Nov. 12 will be given away. For more information on the games this weekend and the start times for the spring schedule, fans are encouraged to follow the team via Facebook and Twitter for more information.

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