WESLEY CHAPEL — Their awards ceremony just minutes away, stragglers in Wesley Chapel High School's senior class hustled into the school gym early Friday still pulling on their caps and gowns.
"All right! Here we go!" the photographer would shout, only to be called off as another classmate wandered in.
Assistant principal Jennifer Crosby warned the 250-member Class of 2009: Be late to Saturday's commencement at University of South Florida, and don't walk.
The restless group cheered. They wanted things to move apace as much as anyone.
After a few minutes more, the photo shoot — including the requisite goofy face picture — was over and the seniors were lining up to migrate to the performing arts center for what would be two hours of honors and awards.
"It's nice to be recognized," said Christi Via, who collected two scholarships, one outstanding student recognition plus some other honors. She plans to study education at Hillsborough Community College. "It's exciting."
To Stephanie Waywood, who will study French at Valencia Community College, the award ceremony served as a wake-up call that things were about to change.
"It's all kicking in that we're graduating and not going to be in high school anymore," Stephanie said. "We're moving on to the next stop in life."
The seniors filed in, the band playing Pomp and Circumstance from behind a curtain. Parents and friends cheered and clapped. Seniors waved back.
Then principal Andy Frelick took the microphone and set the tone.
"The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work," Frelick said, channeling legendary pro football coach Vince Lombardi. "Hard work is the price we must pay for success. You can accomplish anything if you're willing to pay the price."
From there came the honors.
Students received scholarships ranging from $500 to four-year, fully-paid tuition worth tens of thousands of dollars. They got medals and certificates. They received plenty of hugs, not a few tears and loads of praise.
A few kids got their names called more than the others, but by the end of the morning, the vast majority had been recognized at least once.
Jose Amateco, who plans to study at Saint Leo University in the fall, spent perhaps the most time walking to and from the stage. He received a couple of scholarships, a few academic awards and the principal's outstanding senior plaque.
He said he was pleased, surprised and humbled by all the attention.
"There are a lot of students that deserve this," Jose said. "I don't know why they gave it to me. I respect and admire all my peers. They are so helpful to me. That's the only way I survived high school."
Karlyn Muzik, the senior class outstanding drama student, said seeing her friends and classmates receive their awards gave her a new perspective on the people she has spent so many years with.
"It's really cool, because you get to see how everyone else has achieved things," said Karlyn, who will study stage management at the University of Central Florida. "You see them just completely as a friend, and you don't picture them as an academic person. It's really awesome. I gained a lot of respect for them."
Event over, the seniors scattered quickly. Some planned to go home to sleep. A large contingent talked about meeting up at Cracker Barrel.
"It's, like, bittersweet," said Aimee DeLorenzo, a multiple award recipient, who next heads to Ithaca College in upstate New York to study chemistry. "I spend so much time with these people and I'm going to go so far away. ... It's like a new chapter in life."
But not before lunch.
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.