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Quidditch anyone?

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November 15, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — “Brooms down. Eyes closed. And the snitch is loose,” boomed Xander Manshel, commissioner emeritus of the Middlebury College Muggle Quidditch League. The crowd cheered as a gold-clad player dashed away and two teams of undergraduates wearing capes and holding broomsticks between their legs took the field.

As the players scurried around Middlebury College’s Battell Beach on Sunday afternoon the first intercollegiate Quidditch World Cup Fall Festival was under way.

The tournament included more than a dozen teams playing the magical sport portrayed in J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter novels. Unlike in the books, where wizards and witches fly through the air on souped up broomsticks, the Middlebury quidditch players remained strictly earthbound. The competition was no less keen, despite the lack of magic.

“It’s a full-contact sport,” said Middlebury sophomore James Schonzeit, as players from another team tackled each other on the field to wild applause. “A violent ballet, of sorts.”

A dozen home teams competed for a final game vs. visiting Vassar College, in an afternoon that featured 12 games, a half-time show and five or six musical and juggling performances. Middlebury, represented by team Molly Wobbles, took the victory as the sun set on the five-hour-long tournament.

The referee, junior Victor Larsen, explained the game using a plethora of Rowling jargon to a hapless reporter lost in the crowd of Harry Potter buffs.

“Only the seekers can touch the quaffle, only the beaters can touch the bludgers,” he said, never peeling his eyes from the action on the field.

What?

“Keepers’ job is to keep, the chasers score, the seekers seek,” he said.

Nearby on the sidelines, a family dressed up as wizards and witches offered a more comprehensive explanation.

“On each side of the field there are three golden posts,” the youngest wizard said. “Every time one of the chasers throws a quaffle, which in this case is a volleyball, into one of the goals, their team gets 10 points.”

While the chasers are attempting to score, players called beaters are trying to hit them with bludgers, kickballs in Middlebury’s case. If they are hit with a bludger, they have to drop the quaffle.

Meanwhile, Rainey Johnson, a rogue player dressed all in gold, runs wild throughout the game, a tennis ball in a sock attached to the back of his shorts. He isn’t confined to the field; he can run all over campus.

He is the snitch.

Each team has a seeker, whose job it is to find the snitch and snatch the tennis ball. With snitch in hand, a team earns 50 points and the game is over. The winner is the team with the most points — 10 for each time a quaffle goes through a goal, plus 50 if their seeker gets the snitch.

 In the Harry Potter books the snitch is worth 150 points, but Referee Larsen said Middlebury lowered that number because, “we can’t fly as fast.”

To simulate that the players are, in fact, flying, everyone except the snitch holds a broomstick between their legs throughout the game.

Schonzeit, who plays on team Molly Wobbles, said the broomstick element of the game levels the playing field for aspiring “muggle” players (muggles in J.K. Rowling’s world are human beings who can’t do magic).

“Some people can run faster than others. Put a broom between your legs and it’s all equal,” he said.

“Athletes are equal to nerds in this context,” team captain Chris Hofmann added, with a chuckle.

Colleges around the country have toyed with various substitutions for the snitch, which in J.K. Rowling’s books is a magical golden ball with wings. Some use beanbags, which spectators toss back and forth across the playing field, and some a remote-controlled plane or helicopter that the teams try to pull from the sky.

At Middlebury, it’s always been a real person.

“Our snitch does flips,” Larsen said. “Rainey is a cross-country runner and also a wrestler, so he’ll take you down if you try and get him. I’ve never seen a helicopter do that.”

Middlebury was one of the first U.S. colleges to bring quidditch to life. Manshel, the announcer at Sunday’s tournament, spent the first semester of his freshman year in 2005 adapting the fantastical game to the real world.

“I designed some rules that would work without magical forces, without an ability to fly,” he said.

By the end of that semester, he had a polished game and eight intramural teams ready to face off at the first World Cup on Battell Beach. They duct-taped hula hoops to dorm chairs, blasted a boom box toward the field and enticed the players to victory with a trophy, handcrafted from an empty juice bottle, various Tupperware containers and a few cans of gold spray paint.

Since then the event has become an annual tradition.

This year’s Quidditch commissioner, Alex Benepe, is committed to making next year’s tournament even bigger. He’s aiming to host at least five colleges at Middlebury.

“Midd Quidd is definitely here to stay,” he wrote in an e-mail to a reporter after this Sunday’s tournament. “It has taken on a life of its own and found a place in the hearts of most students here. Even if Harry Potter does fade, which is hard to imagine, Xander Manshel’s rendition of the rules is so perfect and fun to play that it is impossible to imagine it ever losing its appeal.”

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