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By Ryan Zimmerman, OhioStateBuckeyes.com

Letecia Wright and Christina Manning, both budding superstars for the women’s track and field team, have been friends and rivals dating to their high school days when they used to go head-to-head at some of the most prestigious track meets in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area.

Today, they boast the best 1-2 punch in the Big Ten in the 100-meter hurdles and bring high hopes to the NCAA East Regionals in Greensboro, N.C., this weekend.

Wright, a Baltimore native, is in her third year with the Buckeyes. She has been one of the most accomplished and dependable performers for the Scarlet and Gray since arriving on campus for the 2008 season, consistently posting top conference and regional times in various sprint and hurdle events. A graduate of Western High School, Wright was named the 2007 Track Performer of the Year by the Baltimore Sun after breaking several records at the 2007 Maryland indoor championships.

Her counterpart Manning, a sophomore from Waldorf, Md., burst onto the season early during the 2010 indoor campaign after an inconsistent freshman season, earning a Big Ten title and All-America honors in the 60m hurdles. An All-American and all-state performer from Westlake High School, Manning was a member of two state championship teams as a high school athlete.

Their friendly high school rivalry played a significant role in their respective journeys to Ohio State. Both have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success to this point in their collegiate careers, but they aren’t the first Maryland track stars to make their mark in the heart of the Midwest.

The Maryland-to-Columbus recruiting pipeline began with former men’s track star Joel Brown, now a volunteer sprint and hurdle coach for the Buckeye women. During his time at Ohio State, Brown played a key role in persuading top Maryland prospects Shayla Moore and Tony Cole to join him in Central Ohio, and his successes as a collegiate athlete at Ohio State had a major influence in Wright’s decision to join the Buckeye program. 

“My experience with recruiting was really stressful, but when Ohio State entered the picture, there was something in my gut that told me ‘this was the place for me,'” Wright said. “Having heard stories about all of Joel’s successes and having the opportunity to train under he and Coach Dennis made my decision pretty easy.”

For Ohio State head coach Karen Dennis, Wright presented a golden opportunity to rejuvenate what had become a fragile sprint and hurdle squad.

“What I loved about Letecia was her versatility,” Dennis said of her junior star. “At the time we were recruiting her, we really didn’t have a deep collection of sprinters or hurdlers, so she became an instant target for our program. Her senior year she was running well in the hurdles and just about every sprint event. I figured if she could run well in so many different events, there was a good chance that she’d be able to run one or two of them very well.”

By the time Wright and Dennis finally made contact, the burgeoning star had become frustrated by the stressful recruiting process. The two quickly formed a connection, and despite strong interest from a number of schools across the country that included Miami, Tennessee and Syracuse, Wright was sold on Ohio State after her first and only visit to Columbus.

“We pride ourselves on having great people here at Ohio State,” Dennis said. “I think the determining factor for Letecia committing to our university was the experience she had with members of the Athletic Department, advisors in the academic program and the SASSO (Student-Athlete Support Services) staff. Everything just seemed to come together for her when she got here.”

Wright was an immediate success as a true freshman, helping the Buckeyes’ 4x100m relay team to a Big Ten title and school-record time during the outdoor season, while posting a Top 3 finish in the 100m hurdles. With her friend and rival thriving as a first-year collegiate athlete, Manning began the same strenuous recruiting process Wright had been subjected to the year before.

“I was emailing just about every school I could think of, trying to get my name out there,” Manning said of her college search. “I always had Ohio State in the back of my mind because of how well Letecia had been performing.

“When Coach Karen contacted me after talking with Letecia, I had a feeling that OSU would be a great fit. I still thank Letecia on a daily basis for putting in a good word for me.”

Having experienced tremendous recruiting success in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, Dennis kept her eye on results from the top meets throughout the region. Manning’s dominance in the Greater D.C. region instantly drew her eye.

“I noticed that she had faster times than Letecia had produced the previous year, so naturally interest in her was high,” Dennis said. “Once she contacted me, I spoke with Letecia and from our conversation, we knew she would be a great fit.”

Like Wright, Manning knew instantly that Ohio State was the right fit for her college career. Dennis believed that having a close personal connection with Wright was a key factor in the future All-American committing to the Buckeyes.

“I think one of the real draws for Christina committing was her relationship with Letecia,” she said. “They had built a strong rapport in high school and it carried over right away.”

And now the relationship that began in high school has only grown stronger on the Ohio State campus. Although the duo challenges each other on the track, they have developed a tight friendship that transcends the sport.

“Christina is like a little sister to me and I’m really proud of all she has accomplished to this point in her career,” Wright said. “We have a great relationship on and off the track and a real understanding of each other. It’s been great having her here as both an opponent and a friend.”

The feeling is mutual with Manning. “Letecia really is my big sister,” she said. “She keeps me in line and helps me stay focused on our goals. Our relationship on and off the track has really made both of us stronger athletes and individuals.”

Despite a number of setbacks – chronic shin splints for Wright and a broken arm during Manning’s freshman year – the two remain committed to rewriting the Ohio State record books and laying a strong foundation for the future of the women’s track program. With championship season underway, Dennis foresees big things from her Maryland “sister act.” Of the 48 competitors in the 100-meter hurdles at this weekend’s NCAA East Regionals, Wright boasts the fifth-best time (13.07) and Manning the seventh (13.10).

The tandem won’t need any motivational speeches after a disappointing finish at the Big Ten outdoor championships in Bloomington two weeks ago. Leading the field comfortably side-by-side with 40 meters to go, disaster struck. Manning caught a hurdle and stumbled, causing Wright to flinch and lose her momentum. Wright still managed to finish third, but scored only six points for the team total instead of the possible 18.

“I think both Letecia and Christina will be motivated from that and are capable of going under 13.00 (seconds) at some point in their careers,” Dennis said of her star sprinters. “What is great about both of the girls is not only that they are capable of running below 13.00, they both expect to do it. They set the bar high for each other and I think both are capable of being on the podium at nationals.”

Thanks in part to their achievements, the outlook for the Buckeyes in Maryland and beyond looks bright. Next season, Bladensburg, Md., native and multi-event phenom Adenike Pedro will continue the Maryland-to-Columbus pipeline. In addition, OSU has several area juniors on its radar for 2011-2012.

“Ohio State certainly pitches itself, but I have no problem carrying the banner for our team when I’m back home,” Wright laughed. “The fact that people are seeing and hearing about all Christina and I have accomplished in college makes Ohio State’s name very influential within the Maryland track community.”

And while Dennis is happy that her star sprinters still have time left on the college track, she is quick to point out the impact that both will have on the future of the women’s track and field program.

“Letecia and Christina, along with Shaniqua (McGinnis), Ashley (Caldwell) and Latoya (Sanderson), have really been the core of our sprint and hurdle crew over the past few seasons,” she said. “Their success at the national, regional and conference level gives us something to tout when we visit recruits in their homes. In that respect, I think the impact both have had on the program could be felt for many years to come.”