LAKELAND — Because his school's boys basketball team reached the Class 5A state final, Clearwater High senior and die-hard fan Ryan Cheney wanted to make a splash during Friday's game.
So he went to a local costume shop.
Cheney, 18, paid $20 for what he considered the perfect outfit for the occasion. Then he headed to the Lakeland Center, site of the game.
After a foul was called against the Tornadoes in the opening minute, Cheney put on his costume — a referee's outfit, sunglasses and blind person's cane. He rose from his seat and walked around as if he couldn't see to poke fun at the officials, which drew laughs from many in the crowd.
"So many calls go against us, I had to do something," Cheney said.
At Friday's game, Cheney was among hundreds of Clearwater High students in attendance. While none matched his creativity, most shared his enthusiasm in supporting the Tornadoes, who ultimately fell to Gainesville High, 53-46.
Throughout the event, Tornadoes fans were loud and proud.
Most wore red Clearwater High T-shirts. Several made signs, one of which said, "Clearwater Basketball — Best in the State." All seemed to enjoy themselves as the Tornadoes attempted to win the program's second championship. The first came in 1981.
"This is exciting," Clearwater senior Laura Sais, 17, said before the game.
"We know we're going to win," added freshman Adela Gavani, 15.
Like many Clearwater students, Gavani and Sais rode on one of two "spirit" buses to Lakeland. The $20 cost included a ticket to the game.
The Tornadoes faithful were energetic from the moment they arrived. They roared when Clearwater players were announced inside the arena. They danced and sang during timeouts. And they celebrated wildly whenever a Tornadoes player did something spectacular.
However, as Gainesville built a sizeable first-half lead, much of that enthusiasm was tempered. Later, when Clearwater trailed 40-27 entering the final quarter, several of its fans looked ready to bolt.
But then the team rallied. And things got exciting.
A roar followed every Clearwater basket, each louder than the one before it.
When Julien Sargent hit a layup with 4:47 left to draw Clearwater to within 40-38, the Tornado student section practically blew the lid off the arena.
But the team's momentum was short-lived.
Gainesville responded with a surge of its own and soon it was over. With time winding down, Purple Hurricane fans began to chant, "We're No. 1, we're No. 1." In the Clearwater section, most had stunned looks on their faces as the clock struck zero.
But while the Clearwater faithful may have been disappointed, they made sure the team knew its effort was appreciated. Some of the night's loudest cheers came as each member of the squad received his runnerup medal.
"They played hard," said senior Michael Holmes, 17. "They just couldn't hit their shots. It's sad."