Cuthbertson Trio Leaves Unmatched Legacy

Everyone seemed to be emotional that late Sunday morning on June 16.

From Cuthbertson's head track coach Dustin Allen, Cuthbertson's distance coach Mark Vilardo and former distance coach Kirk Walsh, to seniors Charlotte Bell, Stella Kermes and Justine Preisano

They all were thinking about the race and, seemingly, what was about to happen.

Bell, Kermes and Preisano were going to be racing together for the last time.


"I had to hold back tears during the pre-race talk as I could see their eyes swelling," Vilardo said. "These girls are all headed for great things, but it's also sad that this has come to an end."

Allen was pacing and jumping up and down while watching on TV at his house, and while his 2-and-a-half-year-old twin boys were yelling, "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Faster! Faster!" Walsh was watching on his back deck on the big screen - each with anticipation, and anxious about how the girls, who had accomplished so much, would run their last race.

As they walked on the track for the last time together while wearing their Carolina Cavaliers club uniforms, numerous thoughts swirled through the minds of arguably the best group of girls' distance runners North Carolina has ever seen. And some would argue the best ever in national history, as well.

Up to that point, they had accomplished more than any group of girls in North Carolina history. Set aside the nine state team titles in cross country, indoor and outdoor track, or the 13 individual or relay titles they had won collectively, or the 10 North Carolina all-time indoor and outdoor records they had broken, or even their four Track & Field News All-American relay honors - the gold standard in All-American awards. Or even that they qualified for Nike Cross Country Nationals, which only a few North Carolina teams have done. 

Consider just the three national records they had broken and seven national titles they had won to that point. No group of girls had ever done that. Alone, that would be enough to squelch any argument no matter what happened in their last race together. 

Debating otherwise would be futile. Facts quiet even the best naysayers.

But this was the last time they would race with each other as a team, and it was at historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia, home of the famed Penn Relays and site of the New Balance Nationals.

What was going through their mind? Could the three, who thought of themselves like sisters and considered themselves best friends, end their high school career with a win or another national record?

"I was filled with emotion," said Kermes. "I knew that this was our last time as a team together, and I didn't want to waste a second of it. I felt so much love for these girls in this moment and wanted to do whatever I could to perform my best for them. It was now or never."

Even if they didn't win, it wouldn't erase what they had accomplished.

Still, the pressure was real.  

"All I was thinking was I need to make the last one the best one," Preisano said. "We have accomplished so much together. I just wanted to end on a high note and have the most fun I could for the last time."

The minds of the three coaches who had helped get them to that point were swirling, as well.

Allen, the leader of arguably the most dominant string of state titles in North Carolina history who brought order, hard work, focus, vision and innovation to a program that, since he had taken over, had won 14 state indoor and outdoor track titles using every discipline: sprints, distance, jumps, throws, hurdles, relays; Walsh, who had coached the girls' program to 5 cross country state team titles, was the architect of the distance program who had also coached the trio in middle school and through their junior year, and helped them believe not only state titles were possible, but national titles and national records, as well; and Vilardo, who had taken over the reins of the distance program after Walsh's retirement at the end of the 2023 track season, and not only kept the juggernaut going at Mach speed, but who also guided the girls' and boys' distance program to improvements in nearly every event. 

Said Allen, contemplating what was happening: "Just excitement and a little anxiety for them, knowing that this is the last time they would get the chance to go for it all as a group one last time."

Walsh's mind quickly sped to the past when thinking about the present and what was about to happen.

"To be honest, I think I felt more nostalgic about states, and their last run in the Cuthbertson uniform," he said, before speeding further back in the past. "That's when their whole youth running career flashed before my eyes. Watching that last school meet, I can't help but picture the kids as they were in the beginning, and all the memories made along the way.

"Then when it came to the post-season races at Hoka, Brooks, and Nationals, it was different. More like looking at the future than reminiscing in the past. You could see it on their faces, so happy, satisfied. And if you know them, you could feel the excitement for what's ahead."


There was definitely excitement in the immediate situation because of the fact they were trying to go out on top - and there was pressure, too. 

Bell, Kermes and Preisano had handled that pressure numerous times, at the Penn Relays, Oregon Relays, Virginia Showcase, Nike Nationals, New Balance Indoor and Outdoor Nationals, Nike Cross Country Regionals and Nationals, numerous indoor and outdoor state track championships, state cross country championships, and in so many other venues and situations.

"It didn't really hit me until right before that this was our last time racing together," Bell said. "It was a kind of surreal feeling, but I was really happy we had one last chance to accomplish something amazing together."

They had also accomplished so much with others, too - Alyssa Preisano, Justine's sister who is now running at Wake Forest University, was a part of last year's national indoor record-setting 4x800-meter relay (8:48.02); sophomore Josie Schihl, who had a breakthrough season and had joined the trio on the record-setting 4xMile indoor national record (19:22.70) and outdoor 4x800-meter state record (8:45.58), just two days prior, on Friday; and junior Tatianna Blake, a 400-meter runner who had joined them on the DMR this year for an indoor national record (11:17.50) and who was running with them on this outdoor DMR team.

This last race was no different in that context - the trio had proved themselves on big stages and they had done so with others helping them in various relays. But it was different this time, because this was the last time the three of them would compete with each other.

Bell is heading to the legendary distance program at Georgetown University, made famous by their historic and notable wins at the Penn Relays; Kermes is going to the University of Virginia, where famed coach Vin Lananna has quickly reshaped the program into a national distance power like he did at Stanford University and the University of Oregon, and Preisano will be running at distance power N.C. State University, where former All-American and alum Laurie Henes has guided the team to two straight national cross country titles for the storied program and where the Wolfpack annually competes for the title.

All of that wasn't lost on Vilardo, who tried to focus on a mix of what was ahead, as well as trying to help them stay focused and understand the significance of what was in front of them and what they had the opportunity to do.

"Before the race we talked about no matter how great their futures might be, they may never be on another team like this and laying it on the line one more time for their sisters," he said. "As they toed the start, I was just worried about tactical issues like positioning versus Ventura."

Yes, that Ventura, from California, with Sadie Engelhardt, the national high school record holder in the mile at 4:28.46, and who had helped Ventura set the DMR national outdoor record at the famed Mt. SAC Relays on April 20, as Engelhardt brought Ventura back from a three-second deficit and split 4:33.95 on her 1,600-meter leg to finish in 11:21.85. 

Although that time was short of Cuthbertson's indoor national DMR record of 11:17.50 set in March, Ventura had the ability to match the Cavaliers stride for stride.

But it wasn't just Ventura, as other heavyweights were in the race, too: Assumption (Louisville, KY); Hamilton Southeastern (Fishers, IN); West Ottawa (Holland, MI); Padua Academy (Wilmington, DE); Pioneer (Ann Arbor, MI), and West Springfield (VA).

But Cuthbertson had fended off the likes of these programs before; they had faced the vaunted and perennial national power Saratoga Springs (NY), as well as Union Catholic (Scotch Plains, NJ), made famous by Olympic and World Champion Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and also known because of their storied history at the Penn Relays and success on the national level, Texas distance power Flower Mound (TX), and other nationally known programs in various national races.


Four years ago, the stage was different. They weren't the favorites, they were the unknowns who were still unsure of themselves and beginning to test racing on the national stage. 

"Their freshman year, Charlotte and Justine ran their first Nike Nationals meet at Oregon's Hayward Field, and you could see the awe in their eyes," Walsh said. "Day one, as we were walking up to the stadium, they peeked in the glass door of Hayward Tower, and Cole Hocker came walking out and chatted up the squad. What an intro to town!"

That chance intro seemed to help quiet their nerves, as both ran personal bests: Justine ran 5:04.76 and Charlotte ran 5:06.44. "With that quick success, they were super confident heading into the 4xMile relay, which they were set to run with super sophomores Alyssa (Preisano) and Lily Nasta," Walsh remembers. "We were expecting a big All-American performance, but it didn't play out as planned. Every leg of the relay was off, and we finished a disappointing seventh, missing All-American by one place."

"As disappointing as that race was, it was an important starting point in the relay success to come. First, just experiencing that huge scene and the nerves that go with it. The only way to get used to that is to take it head on and feel it. It also helped to face Saratoga and other elite national teams. Our kiddos got to watch them prepare and just be in their presence throughout the weekend. The more you have those exposures, the more you realize they're just kids like you."

There was a silver lining in the disappointment, though, as they set the North Carolina record of 20:57.40, becoming the first North Carolina girls' team to dip under the 21-minute barrier. Ironically, it came in a race where Saratoga Springs (NY) set the national high school record of 19:40.67.

It was a sign of things to come. 

"In retrospect, I'd say it was a blessing to have that difficult first experience," Walsh said. "They learned so much from it and came back hungry and far better prepared the next time around. And if you look at their next national relay, at Nike Indoor Nationals their sophomore season, they took full advantage of that experience, winning the 4x800 title in a state record 8:59. And from there, the rest is history."


Fast forward from that disappointment in 2021 to the 2024 New Balance Indoor Nationals in Boston this past March.

Although they had set the national indoor record in the 4x800-meter relay in 2023, and had four national titles under their belt at that point, they came in with questions. Kermes was coming back from a stress fracture that had kept her from racing until late in the indoor season, and even though there was anticipation, there was still anxiousness and the unknown. 

How would they do? Could they go toe-to-toe with the best in the country without knowing how everyone would respond? Did they even believe they could, considering Kermes' situation and that Schihl had not been tested under these circumstances?

"Words can't describe what we accomplished in indoor this past year. I was still coming back from a stress fracture, so our performance was still up in the air," Kermes said. "I knew that we had the chance to do well, but when we crossed the line in both the 4xMile and DMR, I was speechless. The fact that we were all able to come together and give it our best is just amazing. I wouldn't want to do it with any other girls."

She was speechless because they set two national high school records and won two national titles. 

And their goal was just to win. Records were secondary.

That's why the videos and photos all over social media of them covering their mouths in disbelief, and the coaches, teammates and family members looking on in shock seem so genuine. Because they were. They couldn't believe what they had done. They were just trying to win. 

"I definitely experienced a range of emotions both times we broke national records this year," Bell said. "During my indoor season, I felt disbelief because we went into both the DMR and the 4xMile focused more on our place than breaking a national record. It took several days for our accomplishment to really sink in."

Allen echoed that sentiment; if the records happened, that was extra. 

"We really never spoke about national records with them," Allen said. "We talked about the plan to go out there and win races, and if we did something special a record might happen. Lots of pressure to go out there week in and week out chasing records, so let's go out there and execute a plan to win races."

Vilardo concurred: "Not once did we talk about times."


Fast forward back to Sunday, June 16, at New Balance Outdoor Nationals.

The last day of competition is also the last race for Bell, Kermes and Preisano, together, as a relay.

Preisano started off hot, splitting 3:29.12 for the 1,200-meter leg, nearly 3 ½ seconds ahead of second-place Padua Academy (Wilmington, DE).

Blake took the baton and sped to 57.86 in her 400-meter leg, as they widened their lead and she handed off the baton to Kermes in 4:26.97, while Padua dropped to third (4:32.71) and West Springfield (VA) took over second in 4:32.21.

Kermes, running by herself with a sizeable lead, covered the two laps of her 800-meter leg in a solid, solo effort of 2:11.63. Remarkable considering she was running by herself.

Padua had taken over second again, handing off in 6:42.33, but Kermes' leg still had Cuthbertson up by almost four seconds, as she handed off to Bell in 6:38.60.

It was up to her to not let anyone back in the race. With Engelhardt as anchor, nothing was impossible, but Ventura was eighth after the first leg, sixth after the second leg and dropped to seventh after the third leg, and were down by nearly 12 seconds.

Catching Bell would be difficult. 

Each team seemed to fade as Bell kept increasing her lead over the rest of the field, and as Engelhardt seemed to be catching nearly everyone, bringing Ventura from seventh to second. 

But no one could catch Bell, as the gap was too much even for Engelhardt, who ran 4:42.36 for her 1,600-meter split. 

Bell covered her four laps in 4:41.84 and brought Cuthbertson home with the win and a national high school outdoor record of 11:20.44 - it was almost exactly 12 seconds ahead of Ventura, which ran 11:32.43.

The win gave the trio their fourth national record and eighth national title. 

"I am not a super emotional guy, but when Charlotte broke the tape, I sat there looking at the TV screen and had tears running down my face," Allen said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't be there in person for outdoor, but I was cheering just as hard from home. I am just so proud of them and everything that they have put into this and how hard it is to do what they have done. There have been lots of laughs, lots of tears, lots of pain, but at the end of the day, lots of triumph. It's still all so new as they are just now graduating, but their greatness will only grow in our hearts as we move further into the future and have time to truly reflect."

Reality hit Vilardo almost immediately after the race, as well. 

"The realization set in that we just witnessed the greatest distance team ever," he said

Although Walsh had retired, he still kept up with them, watching each of the big races. He wasn't going to miss this one. 

"I mean, at this point they're family," he said. "And like you would with any family member, I lost my voice cheering them on. It's funny, before last year, we had never run the DMR at a national meet but decided to try it for fun. Now they've won indoor and outdoor national titles in each of the last two years, with national records to close their senior season. Hard to imagine a better ending to their legendary career."

Said Bell, when asked to reflect on the DMR outdoor national record. "I just felt very happy and fortunate to have gotten the chance to break one last record with my teammates."

Kermes seemed to feel equally as fortunate, when asked to contemplate what they had done over their career and that it might not every happen again. 

"It's crazy to think about," Kermes said. "It's hard to process what we've done collectively through our high school careers. I feel that we have left a great mark on high school distance running."

Preisano seemed equally in awe of not only the win and record, but everything they had accomplished, when asked to reflect on what it all meant. 

"Ending with the win and national record in the DMR meant a lot to me, because going into this meet, we were really focusing on the DMR," she said. "We love running that race together and the fact that we could end our season with a national record and a national championship was amazing."

Allen texted an emotional message to the quartet after they broke the record. It summed up everything they had gone through and accomplished in a heartfelt way, and, really, was a tribute to them. 

"Amazing!! I'm in such awe of you 4 and what you were able to accomplish," his text began. "Today is the accumulation of years of hard work. Years of stacking one day on top of the other. Years of great days, good days, bad days, and awful days. Years of scratching to be the best you can be. Years of everything to end at the top with another national championship and national record. No one knows exactly what it takes, but you have proven that when you sacrifice and do it the right way greatness is the outcome. I'm so proud of each and every one of you. Go enjoy it!!"

What everyone witnessed, not just that day but throughout their career, might have been the most incredible feats in national high school history - indoor and outdoor - and might never be duplicated, or at least not duplicated for a long time. 

Owning four of the six distance relay national records, indoors and outdoors, makes it difficult to think otherwise.

"It's honestly just surreal to think about," said Preisano when asked to contemplate that. "The fact that we have four national records and eight national championships was something I never thought was possible at the beginning of these four years. It is also so special to me that I got to accomplish all of this with my best friends right by my side the whole time. When we are in the middle of competition, it is hard to reflect on all we have accomplished. Now that we have graduated and finished up our high school racing career, it has helped us look back and be grateful for all we have accomplished. I hope that others can see what we have done and reach for goals that seem unachievable."

"It was definitely a magical time for the kids," said Walsh, when asked to contemplate the possibility of them being considered the greatest group of distance talent in national high school history. "And I believe they should absolutely be considered the greatest high school distance squad in US history. Current national record holders in all three indoor distance relays, plus the outdoor DMR is hard to argue against. As far as if those records will go down, American distance running seems to be improving exponentially each year, so who knows. But will anyone else hold four different records at the same time? That's hard to imagine."

Two days after the girls finished their race, Vilardo, Mike Preisano (Justine's dad), James Kermes (Stella's dad), along with another dad (Brett Young) of a rising freshman, followed through with a promise. If the girls won and set a record, Vilardo, and the dads of the two girls, would run a 4x400-meter relay at a local Tuesday night track meet in south Charlotte. 

Like the three girls had done throughout their career, those dads toed the line and came through by exceeding expectations. The quartet ran 40 seconds under their goal.

The trio of girls, who had inspired teammates and competitors to achieve at such a high level throughout their high school career, had already begun to inspire others to reach for those "goals that seem unachievable" as Preisano said.



* Distance Medley Relay, 2023

* 4xMile, 2023

* 4x800 relay, 2022, 2023

**Because of their record-setting feats this season, they will also likely be named 2024 All-American by Track & Field News in the 4x800-meter relay, Distance Medley Relay and 4xMile Relay (Track & Field News only names one team for indoor and outdoor track, so they consider both indoor and outdoor performances).



* Justine Preisano, Tatiana Blake, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, Distance Medley Relay (indoors), 11:17.50, 2024

* Justine Preisano, Stella Kermes, Alyssa Preisano, Charlotte Bell, 4x800-meter relay (indoors), 8:48.02, 2023 

* Josie Schihl, Stella Kermes, Justine Preisano, Charlotte Bell, 4xMile (indoors), 19:17.70 (19:22.70y), 2024

* Justine Preisano, Tatiana Blake, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, Distance Medley Relay (outdoors), 11:20.44, 2024



* Charlotte Bell, 1,000 meters (indoors), 2:49.32, 2022 

* Justine Preisano, Stella Kermes, Alyssa Preisano, Charlotte Bell, 4x800-meter relay (indoors), 8:48.02, 2023 

* Miranda Watts, Marissa Watts, Tatiana Blake, Charlotte Bell, 1,600-meter sprint medley (indoors), 4:08.02, 2023 

* Justine Preisano, Alyssa Preisano, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, 4xMile (outdoor), 20:05.91, 2023

* Justine Preisano, Tatiana Blake, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, Distance Medley Relay (indoors), 11:17.50, 2024

* Josie Schihl, Stella Kermes, Justine Preisano, Charlotte Bell, 4xMile (indoors), 19:17.70 (19:22.70y), 2024

* Charlotte Bell, 1,500 meters (outdoors), 4:16.67, 2024

* Charlotte Bell, 1,600 meters (outdoors), 4:33.98, 2024

* Justine Preisano, Josie Schihl, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, 4x800-meter relay, 8:45.58 (outdoors), 2024

* Justine Preisano, Tatiana Blake, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, Distance Medley Relay (outdoors), 11:20.44, 2024




* Stella Kermes, Justine Preisano, Charlotte Bell, Alyssa Preisano, 4x800-meter relay, 8:59.85 (Nike Indoor Nationals)


* Justine Preisano, Stella Kermes, Alyssa Preisano, Charlotte Bell, 4x800-meter relay, 8:48.02 (New Balance Indoor Nationals) 

* Alyssa Preisano, Justine Preisano, Charlotte Bell, Stella Kermes, Distance Medley Relay, 11:35.51 (New Balance Indoor Nationals)

* Justine Preisano, Alyssa Preisano, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, 4xMile, 20:05.91 (New Balance Outdoor Nationals)

* Charlotte Bell, Justine Preisano, Alyssa Preisano, Stella Kermes, Distance Medley Relay, 11:33.18 (New Balance Outdoor Nationals)


* Justine Preisano, Tatiana Blake, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, Distance Medley Relay, 11:17.50 (New Balance Indoor Nationals)

* Josie Schihl, Stella Kermes, Justine Preisano, Charlotte Bell, 4xMile, 19:22.70 (New Balance Indoor Nationals)

* Justine Preisano, Tatiana Blake, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, Distance Medley Relay, 11:20.44 (New Balance Outdoor Nationals)


STATE TITLES (9 team, 13 individual or relay titles)


NCHSAA 3A Cross Country State Team Championship

NCHSAA 3A Outdoor Track & Field State Team Championship


NCHSAA 4A Cross Country State Team Championship

NCHSAA 4A Indoor Track & Field State Team Championship

NCHSAA 4A Outdoor Track & Field State Team Championship

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 800-meter state outdoor champion

Stella Kermes, NCHSAA 4A 1,000-meter state indoor champion

Charlotte Bell, Lillian Nasta, Gabi Lassiter, Justine Preisano, NCHSAA 4A 4x800-meter relay state indoor champion (set all-class state meet record, 9:24.12)

*Stella Kermes, Gatorade North Carolina Cross Country Runner-of-the-Year


NCHSAA 4A Cross Country State Team Championship

NCHSAA 4A Indoor Track & Field State Team Championship

NCHSAA 4A Outdoor Track & Field State Team Championship

Stella Kermes, NCHSA 4A Cross Country State Championship

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 800-meter state outdoor champion

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 1600-meter state outdoor champion (set all-class state meet record, 4:43.27)

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 1,600-meter state indoor champion (set all-class state meet record, 4:45.19)

Justine Preisano, Josie Schihl, Stella Kermes, Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 4x800-meter relay state outdoor champion (set all-class state meet record, 9:01.84)

Justine Preisano, NCHSAA 4A 1,000-meter state indoor champion


NCHSAA 4A Indoor Track & Field State Team Championship

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 800-meter state champion

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 1600-meter state outdoor champion (set all-class state meet record, 4:38.92)

Charlotte Bell, NCHSAA 4A 1,600-meter state indoor champion (set all-class state meet record, 4:44.75)

Justine Preisano, NCHSAA 4A 1,000-meter state indoor champion