TAMPA — Ask Land O'Lakes High graduates for a term to describe their Class of 2008, and one word repeats — big.
At 591 students, the group made Pasco history Thursday as the county's largest graduating class. Ever.
Their procession into the USF Sun Dome lasted 15 minutes, extended a bit by a rush to find an extra row of chairs to accommodate six kids who otherwise would have had to stand.
As they sat, principal Monica Ilse recognized the students as the "biggest and best" class that Pasco had to offer. The standing-room-only crowd whooped and set off shrieking air horns.
Though "big" might have described the Class of 2008, it certainly didn't define it. As valedictorian Ana Hiller, 18, said in her speech, "Besides being just a number, what has it meant? It has meant being the best."
The seniors did well, Hiller noted. "Isn't that what it is all about? Standing out and making our mark?"
Indeed, senior Lance Yarbrough, 18, said, "We're all wearing caps and gowns, but each person under the caps and gowns is different."
Meet some of them.
Aeron Van Scoyk, 18, hopped on the bus at 6:15 a.m. daily to ride from New Port Richey to his Land O'Lakes International Baccalaureate program. He plans to study computer engineering at the University of Florida.
Cedric Franklin, 18, looked forward to independence at Hillsborough Community College. His dad, Maurice Franklin, beamed at his only son's accomplishment. "He's becoming a man," Franklin said of Cedric. "In this day and age, with kids today, it's really hard to stay on the straight and narrow path."
Katelyn Steiner, 18, shared the worry that most of the high-heeled girls had, that she might fall crossing the stage. "We worked all of our lives to make it. I feel like a new journey in my life is starting," Steiner, a future teacher, said. But not by falling.
Crystal Perez, 19, grew frustrated at one point during high school and wasn't sure she could make it through. "But the interpreters and the teachers helped me a lot, and finally I was able to do it, thank God," Perez, who is hard of hearing, said through an interpreter. "I'm excited. I feel good. I've never had this experience before." She plans to study photography at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
The actual event went off without a hitch. Speakers made motivational comments, people cheered at the appropriate moments, the few beach balls that got past security quickly got stashed after just a few bounces.
No one fell down on the stage. The name readers didn't mangle anyone's name. And the ceremony went quickly, too.
The diploma cover distribution (actual diplomas were stored back stage for later) took just 37 minutes from Erik Aadland to Kayla Zonni. The crowd was on its way home well before the 1 p.m. target. And to think Ilse worried that finishing in two hours would be "a challenge."
The graduates said they had a vested interest in making their commencement a good one.
"It marks the end of a very, very long, good, bad, boring, fun string of events," said Jacob Crescent, 18, who heads to the University of Florida in the fall to study history.
"It means a lot to me," said Shernell Evans, 18, who plans to attend HCC to become a communications interpreter. "The majority of us were stressing over the fact that we weren't going to see this day. We basically pushed ourselves. I didn't have to. I chose to."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.