As graduates stepped across the stage at the University of South Florida’s Yuengling Center to accept their diplomas — the crowd erupted with cheers and applause.
That’s not an atypical reaction at graduation ceremonies, but this one was particularly special.
The Class of 2019 at Cypress Creek Middle High School made history on June 5, by becoming the first crop of graduates from the Wesley Chapel high school.
They were among thousands of seniors marking the traditional rite of passage, in graduation ceremonies large and small across The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.
Many of those graduation ceremonies took place at USF’s Yuengling Center, but some were held in smaller, more intimate settings.
The Cypress Creek seniors wore gowns donned with green and yellow — representing their school colors.
These graduates have been leaders at the school since it opened in the Fall of 2017, without a senior class.
“Every graduating class is special, but these guys and girls are incredibly near and dear to our hearts,” said Cypress Creek Principal Carin Hetzler-Nettles. “They’ve literally built the foundation for this school.”
The graduating class is comprised of 225 students, included six pairs of twins.
Many Cypress Creek graduates have been accepted already to colleges, such as Saint Leo University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and scores of others.
“I’ve been accepted into USF since September (2018),” said Cypress Creek graduate Hayley McManus.
She’s considering a major in engineering or psychology.
Graduation marks an end, and a beginning
Thousands of students across the region are leaving a familiar place — whether it was a sprawling college campus, a small private school, or a large high school — to start a new journey in life.
The thought of receiving her diploma was a lot to take in, for McManus, an 18-year-old from Cypress Creek.
“It’s kind of surreal,” she said. “I had hopes that I would graduate, but I never thought about how being the inaugural class would feel. I feel kind of special that I’m setting the precedent.”
Sam Mazzeo had a similar feeling of pride about being Cypress Creek’s first graduating class, and also about helping to set an example for the school’s younger students.
He wants to return to Cypress Creek to help coach football.
Jason Stahlgren, a Florida transplant from Ohio, didn’t arrive at Cypress Creek until his senior year.
But, the warm welcome he received made it a good experience, he said.
“Moving my senior year was tough, but everybody here made it really easy,” said Stahlgren.
When Karisma Brooks initially arrived at Cypress Creek, her only desire was to return to her former high school in Tampa, she recalled.
Over time, though, she adjusted to her new environment and was able to create some memorable moments – especially as a member of the school’s first step team.
“It was a really big impact on us to bring African-American culture to the school,” Brooks said, with a smile.
The 17-year-old is now ready to serve her country as part of the U.S. Air Force, and then plans to seek a degree in health sciences.
Graduates earn diplomas, accolades
Lucas Budd, the Cypress Creek valedictorian, was one of more than 60 Pasco seniors from various high schools to receive an associate’s degree from Pasco-Hernando State College.
During the ceremony, Budd told his fellow students: “Today marks the end of a significant and memorable chapter in our lives. Be proud of this accomplishment, but leave some praise for the people who helped us graduate. We should be thankful for our families who have supported us.”
Lori Vogel was in the crowd to support Ashley Nickisher, a graduate and Vogel’s niece.
“This is a very special moment, and I’m very excited for her,” Vogel said.
In her remarks during the ceremony, Cypress Creek Principal Hetzler-Nettles told the Class of 2019: “You’ve made me so very proud. As you move into life on your own personal journey and to new territory, exploring new things, remember what you’ve accomplished. You’re an integral part of something larger than yourself.”
While Cypress Creek graduates were making history, members of the Class of 2019 across Pasco County had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Land O’ Lakes High School, with more than 400 graduates, received more than $12 million in scholarship offers.
Zephyrhills High, with an estimated 360 graduates, pulled in more than $750,000 in scholarship offers.
Pasco High School, which issued diplomas to more than 300 students, received more than $1 million in scholarship money.
And, that’s just to mention a few of the accomplishments, among the region’s public schools.
Private schools and area colleges also had plenty of reasons to be proud.
Academy at the Lakes in Land O’ Lakes had its graduation ceremony on May 18.
“We had 42 graduates – 100 percent of them going on to college,” said Mark Heller, head of the private school.
Among the schools accepting Academy students are Yale University, Vanderbilt University, University of Florida, University of Washington and the Pratt Institute art school.
“At a school like Academy at the Lakes, relationships are everything,” Heller stated. “Relationships between the teachers and students really are the key to preparing these young adults to be the best they can be.”
Even at the collegiate level, there was much to be celebrated.
Pasco-Hernando State College had two commencement ceremonies at its West Campus in New Port Richey.
Graduate Stephanie Bostick received an associate of arts and associate of science degree in legal assisting. Tracy Meshey persevered with a brain injury to earn her associate of science degree, and Maria Madeiros received her associate of arts degree after relocating from her native Brazil and learning to speak English.
Saint Leo University awarded more than 1,250 degrees.
The university’s valedictorian was Angela Lazzaro, a psychology major. Its salutatorian was Jennifer Fields, a criminal justice major.
Published June 12, 2019