LAND O'LAKES — Pomp and Circumstance blared through the speakers in the Sunlake High gym Thursday as the school's first graduating class milled in the entry way.
The seniors on the right were lined up and ready to go. On the left, not so much.
"Get in the order you were sitting!" shouted graduation coordinator Barbara Long. "Where's Samantha? Why are you out of order?"
Sitting at the stage, principal Angie Stone shook her head.
"This," she said quietly, "is why we rehearse."
Stone has overseen a high school graduation before. But not at the University of South Florida Sun Dome, and not for Sunlake High. And because it's Sunlake's debut senior class, she wants it to be special.
So practice is key, particularly because the school is trying a couple of unusual things for the 248 graduates.
It's letting them sit by their friends (instead of in alphabetical order) so they might enjoy the ceremony a bit more. The only caveat is that the boys and girls have to sit in certain seats, so when they wear their caps and gowns — boys in black, girls in teal — they spell out "09."
Each student also submitted some comments to be read about themselves when they are presented for their diploma.
"It makes it much more personal," said Ellery Christensen, who plans to take courses at Hillsborough Community College and USF in the fall. "Most people (mention) their parents. They'll be in the stands going, 'Oh, my baby!' Especially my mother. I'm the youngest and the only girl."
She sat reminiscing with classmate Michael Johnson about their years together. They laughed about their favorite class activities (dissecting a cat) and favorite coaches (swimming), and looked forward to the future.
"I haven't made any plans," said Michael, who holds the school record in the breast stroke. "I don't think it's going to really hit me until I walk across the stage."
Many in the class had fond feelings for Sunlake, but still felt a bit of remorse about being forced to leave Land O'Lakes High two years ago when Sunlake opened.
"At first, I did not like it at all," said Marlon Dimaio, who plans to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College in the fall. "After a while I got used to it, and now I like coming to this school."
Having friends there with him made the transition easier. The teachers helped, too, said Munerah Madi.
"They knew it was hard for us to transfer schools," said Munerah, who plans to study photography at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. "They made it as easy as possible."
And now that they're graduating, they're proud of their accomplishments and the fact that they set the bar high for future senior classes.
"We trying to set the standard for years to come," said Megan Herbst, who will study at St. Petersburg College in the fall.
Archie Hemmingway, who wants to attend Embry-Riddle in the fall, said he was thrilled to be part of it.
"I think it's pretty amazing to be the first class," he said. "Especially at this school. It's a really good school."
For the record, the class eventually did put together an organized processional.
Sure, a few skipped up the aisle. Several held hands and acted silly. A couple pretended to trip and fall.
But after a second try, they were keeping in line and moving quickly enough to beat the music to the end. And just in case, they have another practice this morning.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.