Quidditch comes back home before World Cup

MIDDLEBURY — This weekend the sport of quidditch will come home to Middlebury, where the game was first played by non-wizard humans seven years ago. On Sunday beginning at 9 a.m., with Mead Chapel’s bells ringing the theme from the Harry Potter movies, caped college students will kick off a full day of the wizarding game.

Matches, which feature players running around with brooms between their legs trying to throw balls through mounted hoops and catch a rogue player called a “snitch,” will be played on Battell Beach. They are all free and open to the public.

Since Xander Manshel first brought the sport — introduced in the Harry Potter books, where it is played on flying brooms  — to terrestrial spheres in 2005, Quidditch has entranced collegiate athletes the world over. The International Quidditch Association (IQA) claims 322 registered teams in the U.S. and another 50 international teams. Not bad for a self-described “magical nonprofit” founded by quixotic college students.

“I’m looking forward to the Middlebury Classic,” said Alex Benepe, high commissioner of the IQA and a Middlebury graduate. “This is an exhibition tournament, so the focus isn’t competition. We’ll have music, food, farm animals, along with the Quidditch matches.”

This weekend is Fall Family Weekend at the college, and if past quidditch tournaments are any indication, the Middlebury Classic will be the center of attention. The event will feature music, dance, and an ongoing comedy act. Catering will be provided by American Flatbread, the Skinny Pancake and Noonie Deli. A portion of Sunday’s profits will benefit Tropical Storm Irene victims in Vermont.

Members of the two campus improvisational comedy groups, Otter Nonsense and Middlebrow, will give play-by-play announcements over the public address system.

“That’s always a highlight,” Benepe said.

Benepe, a 2009 graduate of Middlebury College, has lent his distinctive cane-and-top-hat panache to Quidditch functions since the beginning, and “High Commissioner” may be a lifetime position. Benepe lives in New York City, where the Quidditch World Cup will be held in November, but he will travel to Middlebury to oversee this weekend’s competition.

As the home of muggle Quidditch (“muggle” in Harry Potter-speak is someone who isn’t a wizard), Middlebury has a reputation to uphold. Middlebury has never lost a tournament game, but the sport has evolved since last year’s World Cup. There will be 12 or 13 other schools here, and some schools will bring several teams. Andy Hyatt, a senior at Middlebury, estimated that more than 20 teams will enter the bracket.

Hyatt has been playing Quidditch since his freshman year, and is one of three Middlebury “tri-commissioners” who organized the festivities.

“Our goal is to have an all-Middlebury final,” he said. “We have to lose eventually, but I’d rather it wasn’t this year.”

Though Hyatt was optimistic about Middlebury’s chances, he stressed that cutthroat competition wasn’t in the spirit of the game.

“Quidditch started as a slightly ridiculous prank,” he said. “The whole game is tongue-in-cheek, and a lot of teams are losing some of that inherent silliness.”

According to Hyatt, many teams who learn to play from YouTube videos and the online rulebook are missing the sport’s humorous character.

“There were some ambulance trips at last year’s World Cup,” Hyatt said.

The IQA calls Quidditch “the only fantasy sport that will make you break a sweat,” but Hyatt feels that unless teams tone down their aggression, players will break bones, too.

“The spirit of the game is hard to convey, especially now that it’s an international sport. We want to build community between teams. Especially here at Middlebury we want this to be more of a carnival atmosphere than a sports tournament,” Hyatt said.

At some schools, where the sport is attracting varsity-level athletes, Quidditch teams meet for regular practices to drill and prepare for tournaments.

“We get together once a week to scrimmage,” Hyatt said of Middlebury’s regular Quidditch players, of whom there are more than 50. “It’s not really a practice even, just a chance to play.”

Despite the rumors, Benepe said, Quidditch is not going to become an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

“We’re not looking for that sort of recognition,” he said. “Next year we’re moving to a more structured Division I and Division II system, but Quidditch isn’t like most other sports.”

Clearly.

But, the athletes are getting more serious, the hits are getting harder, and Hyatt wants to make sure that Quidditch stays community-oriented.

“The main unwritten rule is ‘Don’t be a jerk’,” Hyatt said.

No teams will be eliminated from World Cup at the Middlebury Classic, so Hyatt is hopeful that the competition will stay within friendly bounds. Middlebury teams will hold a later tournament to decide what teams will travel to the World Cup on Nov. 12-13 on Randall’s Island, which is located in New York City in the East River.


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