NEW PORT RICHEY — It was going to be a night for tears, win or lose, state or no state, and everyone knew it as they entered Wendell L. Krinn Gymnasium on the campus of Ridgewood High School, home of the Rams. The big home game.
The final one.
"One for everyone," Ridgewood junior forward Josh Vail said.
It was the Class 6A region final, Ridgewood against Palatka, and the gym brimmed with nearly 1,500, as many as the fire codes allowed. It was a remarkable evening before the jump ball was ever tossed, with a first-ever Ridgewood trip to the Final Four on the line.
And on the way out the door.
There were tears for that alone.
"We want to send it off the right way," Ridgewood senior guard Ty Quiroz said before the game. "We want to go out with history."
Ridgewood High School, which opened as a middle school in 1978, will cease to exist after this academic year. It will close its doors, then reopen as a technical school, Wendell L. Krinn Technical School to be exact, again in honor of Ridgewood's first principal. The new school will boast disciplines like cybersecurity, robotics and electronics and cosmetology training. It will not offer athletics or field athletic teams.
Friday was the final game in the gym, no matter what.
"It's emotional," Ridgewood coach Derek Delgardo said Thursday. The Rams entered Friday's game with a 27-3 record. "We're Cinderella. But it's hard not to see (Friday) as the end of something."
Your high school is always your high school. Imagine if they shut yours down. This year has been wrenching for Ridgewood students, the majority of whom will be dispatched to either Fivay or Gulf high schools, players to new teams, and for teachers and staff with uncertain futures. That would include Delgardo, who also is a graduation coach at Ridgewood.
We're not trying to make this into a tragedy. Recent events in Parkland should serve as a reminder. Still, this hasn't been easy.
"We're family," said Ed McComiskey, who has taught at the school for 21 years and coaches soccer. "There's Ridgewood pride. You see it with these basketball kids."
Ridgewood serves many low income families. More than 80 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. Ridgewood is home. They come early and stay late. Ridgewood is their family.
But the family is being pulled apart.
"The hardest part is the history of the school," said Dr. Chris Dunning, Ridgewood's principal, who also will be principal of the technical school. "There are students whose parents went here. Generations. It was once known as 'The Pride of Pasco.' "
He added, "How special would it be to go out with a state title?"
One for everyone.
"We'll be losing something no matter what," said Gary Anders, the former boys basketball coach. He won 479 games at Ridgewood, which named the basketball court in the gym for him. "I know the kids in that building, they'll be taken care of, and that's what matters. But this hurts."
Ridgewood never gave in during its playoff run. In the region semifinal at Nature Coast, the Rams trailed 22-4 in the first quarter and were down 22 with five minutes left in the third quarter. No matter. They came back. They came to believe this was meant to be.
"Heart and pride," Delgardo said.
That heart and pride filled the gym Friday night, farewell night. On Thursday, Delgardo took time to put new nets on the baskets. He wanted to send the gym out right.
Ridgewood's final graduating class will walk in late May. The school also will hold a closing ceremony before that for students, teachers and staff, past and present. They'll be free to take photos from walls or trophies from cases. Athletes will be able to keep their jerseys.
"I'm not giving mine up," Quiroz said.
This is the part where we tell you that the Ridgewood Rams are headed to the Final Four. They're not. Palatka was a little too fast and a little too good and won 64-51. Quiroz went down with a cut to the left brow. They had a hard time stopping the bleeding for a while. Quiroz didn't cry out of pain. At least not that kind of pain.
In the locker room after the game, there were more tears, Delgardo's included. The finality overtook them. They hugged as they cried.
No, the Ridgewood boys aren't going to the Final Four. There will be no fairy tale finish. The Rams' season is done. And Ridgewood isn't far behind it. But the coach reminded his players that their journey mattered, that it lifted a community — and a high school they loved.
I guess it's easy to think that there wouldn't have been a school to hang a state championship banner in anyway.
"It would have been in our hearts," Delgardo said.
This final journey will be there instead. And their love for each other. Whenever it is, no matter how many years pass, Ridgewood will live on.