Steadying ‘stache

A few minutes after Florida beat Georgia in an elimination game to advance to the SEC Tournament final, Vickash Ramjit walked into the post-game press conference and plopped down in his chair with a sheepish grin and a thick black mustache hanging over his upper lip.

Just minutes before, the redshirt sophomore had been clean-shaven.

“The mustache thing is sort of a team thing,” Ramjit said after the game, trying to hold back laughter as teammates Nolan Fontana and Austin Maddox chuckled on either side of him. “Everybody grows a mustache and I can’t really grow one, so as good teammates they invested in a fake one for me.”

Following an emotional outing for Florida, the fake mustache was symbolic of the fun, light-hearted attitude the Gators have had over the second half of the season.

And, on a Saturday that was more like an emotional rollercoaster ride than another day at the ballpark, it might have been just what Florida needed to refocus and relax after a stressful day.

Things took a suddenly serious turn for Florida when sophomore pitcher Brian Johnson was taken to the hospital in the first inning of the first game of the day against Georgia.

With a runner on first, catch Mike Zunino blocked a ball in the dirt and stumbled trying to throw the runner out at second.

His bullet to second base banged into the back of Johnson’s skull, knocking the big left-hander unconscious and sprawled out on the dirt on the pitcher’s mound for a few minutes.

When trainers finally got him to regain consciousness, they carted him off the field and took him to the hospital.

Shaken, Zunino and the rest of the Gators struggled at the plate and fell to the Bulldogs 3-2 to force a second game, with the loser going home from Hoover.

After Florida won 4-3 to move on to the championship game against Vanderbilt, everything seemed alright when Ramjit walked into the room.

The mustache did the trick, breaking the tension and allowing the emotion to come to the surface so Florida could simply focus on baseball and winning an SEC Tournament title on Sunday.

So how exactly did Ramjit end up with a mustache that would have made Tom Selleck proud?

Apparently, Hudson Randall was the mastermind.

“Playoff time’s coming around, we’re all trying to grow our beards out, looking good, you know,” Randall said Monday with a sly grin. “Vick was struggling in that department a little bit, so I took it upon myself to help him out.”

The sophomore right-handed pitcher from Atlanta was out with his grandparents at a pawn shop in Gainesville following a recent series when he stumbled into a store next door.

He ran across the ‘stache and right away, his plan took hold.

He and a few other members of the team planted the fake ‘stache on Ramjit in batting practice before Saturday’s game, and the team got a real kick out of it.

In fact, many of them thought it was so funny they tried to get Ramjit to wear it during the game.

“He kind of chickened out during the game,” Randall said. “At the end of the game, everybody was in good spirits and Sully decided he should wear it for the interview.”

As Fontana and Maddox laughed as Ramjit fielded questions about the game and his new facial hairstyle, it was clear the team was coping well with the scary moment that had unfolded just hours before.

Things got even better when they got back to the team hotel.

“It was very reassuring to be able to see him back at the hotel already,” Zunino said. “We went back there and all talked to him and hung out with him. He actually was able to go out to dinner with us that night.”

Senior Josh Adams said he felt “nauseous” when he saw Johnson go down like he did, but said his worries were put to rest when he got back to the team hotel and Johnson was joking and “goofing around” like he always does.

The next day, the Gators came out and looked like a well-oiled machine against Vanderbilt, cruising to a 5-0 victory.

Florida was noticeably more relaxed Sunday after getting Johnson in the dugout, and they came out loose and ready to go.

Randall said that’s been one of the keys for the team this year, and it may have been part of the reason he helped Ramjit with his facial hair growth.

“Coming down the home stretch, we were trying to figure out when we play better – under what circumstances,” Randall said. “When we’re loose, having fun with it, having fun out there, we tend to play better.”

In fact, there’s been a noticeable change in the team’s demeanor since they suffered a 4-3 loss to UCF on April 5.

After that game, some of Florida’s leaders got together and decided the team was playing too tight. They approached O’Sullivan and told him they play better when they’re loose and having fun.

Shortly after, the team began showing off their new “swag,” as they called it.

Players would fasten a championship belt after a home run or pop their jerseys at second base after hitting a double.

Sure enough, the results started coming, as the hitting improved and Florida seemed to find a real groove in SEC play.

And, while most players won’t be able to top the creature that sat on Ramjit’s upper lip Saturday, it’s clear the team has taken a liking to the hockey-style playoff beards.

For some, it’s worked better than others.

“Trying,” junior Preston Tucker said, rubbing the stubble on his neck and chin. “My feeble attempt at growing a beard a few days.”

But Tucker wanted to make it clear he’s not gunning for Ramjit.

No, the right fielder doesn’t see that as his style.

“I don’t want a mustache like Vick,” Tucker said. “I’m going to try to avoid that, not doing that one.”

Regardless, Florida’s coming off one of its best seasons in school history. Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Monday this is the most momentum his team has ever taken into the postseason.

If the mustaches help, maybe Randall should up the ante.

After all, who doesn’t want to see Ramjit sporting some friendly mutton chops after Florida’s next game?

Tim Casey was at the press conference in Hoover following Saturday’s game and contributed to this story.