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Teary seniors bid goodbye to Wharton High School

At a graduation ceremony, many reminisce about the good times and friends they are leaving behind.

In the end, graduation day was filled with laughter, tears, reflection and hope for the seniors of Wharton High School.

"It feels so weird," said graduate Danielle Armstrong, a slight quiver in her smile. "I can't believe it's all over. It feels like it's happening too soon."

About 420 Wharton seniors, with blue and white tassels dangling in their faces, walked across the stage and received their diplomas Friday at the University of South Florida Sun Dome. Their parents snapped pictures, and their friends clapped and yelled from the stands above.

"I feel very proud," said Vickie Garcia, videotaping her daughter, Deena.

Wearing navy blue gowns and caps, the graduates said goodbye to their childhoods and hello to adulthood during the emotional rite of passage.

They promised to keep in touch with their friends and to make the most of their uncertain futures.

"My stomach hurts so bad," said Krystin Fox, clutching her middle and her friends. "We've worked 13 years to get here. I'm going to miss it."

"I won't miss the book reports," echoed friend David Thomas. "But I will miss my friends."

Both senior class president Marisa Joseph and valedictorian Matthew Marnell struggled not to cry during their addresses as they thanked their family for support and bade farewell to teachers and friends.

"I thought this day would never come," said Marnell, looking out at the friends he's grown up with.

Class salutatorian Erin Van Trees reminded her classmates that Friday may have been the end of high school, but a life full of promise awaits them.

Principal Mitch Muley called the school's second graduating class a fun and dedicated group of students who earned about $1.6-million in college scholarships. Seventy-five percent of the students are expected to attend college.

He encouraged the students to make their family, friends, health and spirit a priority as they go through life.

"Life is not a race," he said. "It's a journey to be savored. I hope each and every one of you have a wonderful, wonderful life."

_ Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or