The Vander Gals: The Story Behind the Mustached Members of UVA’s Student Section

March 2, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, Andrew Ramspacher,

Ben Vander Plas emerged from the tunnel and was on his way toward one end of the court at John Paul Jones Arena when he felt a tap on his back.

“Yo, Ben,” University of Virginia basketball player Leon Bond said to his teammate, “look at this.”

Vander Plas is a 6-foot-8 forward who wears a headband to hold back his shaggy hair. Above his lip is a brown mustache that he began growing during the quarantine times of 2020 and now wears permanently.

Five decades removed from the disco age, Vander Plas has a style that’s unique in most places – except the JPJ student section.

That’s where Bond pointed Vander Plas to before a game in mid-January.

“There was like 10 of them,” Vander Plas said. “They had the white headbands on and the mustaches ... I saw them and I was like, ‘This is hilarious.’”

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Ben Vander Plas in his basketball uniform walking through a crowd to the court
In his only season on Grounds, Ben Vander Plas – and his signature look – have made quite an impression on UVA fans. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Caroline McGahren is a fourth-year political and social thought major from Charlottesville. On days of UVA men’s basketball games, her phone stays buzzing from a group text that includes her roommate, Caroline Anderson, and a dozen of their classmates.

Who’s going to the game tonight? Who can get there when? Who’s dressing up?

At some point over the last month and a half, a member of the group chat gave it a title: The Vander Gals.

“We coordinate pretty regularly,” McGahren said.

The Vander Gals are a cluster of students who stand together near the band and behind a basket at JPJ. A magnet to both television and in-arena cameras, they are easily recognized by their matching white T-shirts – with, in black Sharpie, “Virginia 5” on the front and “Vander Plas” on the back – white headbands and penciled-on or glued-on mustaches.

This is all for a guy who only arrived on Grounds over the summer and, at 2 p.m. Saturday against the University of Louisville, will play his final home game at JPJ.

“I’ve only been here for one season, but it feels like I’ve been here for a lot longer,” said Vander Plas, a senior transfer from Ohio University averaging over seven points and four rebounds per game for the 13th-ranked Wahoos. “The way the fans and the community have embraced me, it’s been so great. For people to grab on to the mustache and the headband and stuff, it’s been so much fun.”

There are at least two student groups that have made conscious efforts to look like “BVP” this season. Beyond the Vander Gals, there’s a band of fourth-year housemates that, since creating them before UVA’s win over Virginia Tech on Jan. 18, have felt mustaches stuck to a large mirror by the front door.

Four female UVA students looking in the mirror as they put on their headbands and fake mustaches
Sophie Kambour and her roommates apply finishing touches to their outfits before heading off to the game. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“We’ll grab them off the mirror as we head out to a game,” said Sophie Kambour, a fourth-year biochemistry major from Medford, New Jersey.

Like the Vander Gals, Kambour’s group made white headbands out of shirt sleeves, topped with a drawn-on Nike logo to match their favorite player.

Resourceful college kids, indeed.

“The morning of the first game we did it,” Kambour said, “I ran around to a couple of craft stores and got big pieces of brown felt and then huge T-shirts, so I could cut the strips for the headbands. So we were tracing and cutting out the mustaches and then we looked up Nike swooshes to trace the Nike swoosh on the white strips of fabric and then drew them in with Sharpie.”

McGahren’s group originally wore Amazon-ordered stick-on mustaches before adjusting for comfort.

Saturday will mark the last time for this kind of scene at John Paul Jones Arena this season. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“We couldn’t move our faces and be as expressive as we wanted,” McGahren said. “So we started drawing them on the second time. Now, we collect eye-liner pencils and eyebrow pencil and eye shadow, and each of us has our own method of doing up our own mustache.”

Vander Plas’ appearance – “an iconic look,” McGahren said – lends him to be easy inspiration for creative students seeking to stand out in the basketball crowd. But for fourth-year students such as Kambour, McGahren and their friends, dressing up this way has helped them make the kind of memories they felt they were missing during the pandemic-hindered years of their UVA experience.

“Our first year and second years got cut short from going and being able to experience sporting events,” Kambour said. “So my whole philosophy has been like, ‘This is our last year. We have to go to everything. We have to be in the student section for everything. Let’s just throw ourselves into it.’”

Said McGahren: “Starting in the fall, we were throwing around ideas for funny outfits we could wear or ways we could stand out in the student section because we have this motto: ‘It’s fourth-year, we’re going to full-send everything. We’re not doing anything half-way.’”

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

The all-in approach has led to bits of fame. After UVA’s win over North Carolina State University on Feb. 7, the Vander Gals were able to meet Vander Plas – “He was really appreciative of us, and thought we were funny,” McGahren said – and, then prior to the win over Clemson University on Tuesday, UVA President Jim Ryan joined the whole crew – including Kambour’s group – for a photo.

“It was super fun,” Anderson said. “We saw (Ryan) coming toward us and we were all like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening.’ It was so exciting. And we had no idea we were going to be on his social media, too, which was the cherry on top of the cake.”

For a few of them, it was their first time interacting with the president.

“What an interesting way to meet him,” Anderson said, “with our mustaches on and everything.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications