Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Texas Quidditch

“Snitch, you’re such a dick!”

“Yeah, well, he’s allowed to be.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to yell at him!”

This exchange takes place between two black-and-green-clad Slytherins, after realizing the Snitch had pulled out one of the three hoops that loom behind the Slytherin Keeper from the grass. The Snitch, wearing a banana-yellow bandana, laughs manically as he sprints, fast—faster than anyone else on any of the four teams.

This isn’t a dream. This is just a Saturday morning on Whitaker Fields at the University of Texas at Austin. Author J.K. Rowling probably never imagined her books about a teenage wizard would become an award-winning, billion-dollar enterprise. Rowling probably never imagined the sport she invented for her wizarding world—which is played flying on broomsticks—would be played in reality, by Muggles (non-magic folk) running around with broomsticks between their legs, all over the world. But today quidditch is played in over 200 universities, all linked by the International Quidditch Association based in New York. All of these universities have weekly practice matches, regional tournaments and even, yes, a World Cup.

In that list of over 200 is UT, a university known for its subculture of pride and passion for football. But while its football team is famous, sometimes controversial and historic, the Texas Quidditch team is sweeping (pun intended) the modern world of college sports with the intensity only Longhorn Potterheads can bring.

It was Middlebury College in Vermont that founded intercollegiate quidditch, and the IQA was formed in 2007. UT was one of the last universities to register in 2009. But in the short while Texas Quidditch has been active, it’s already got enough to brag about: the team scored second place in the IQA Southwest Cup in Lubbock in 2011 and second place at a tournament in Texas A&M in 2010.

But more important than winning, many UT students love quidditch because it brings together two things they love: contact sports and “Harry Potter.”

“I love football,” says English major Alison Nitsche. “I go to all the Longhorn games and go to the OU game, but I also think quidditch is really awesome because it’s much more physical than you would think.”

The third-year UT student has been coming to watch the games since last year, when she first found out about it after a few of her friends tried out and made it into Slytherin. She sits on the bleachers, a hand over her eyes to block out the morning sun, and says people make fun of the players every once in a while.

“A bunch of my roommates and friends came out here with me and they made fun of it and laughed,” she says. “Because it is kind of ridiculous, people running around on broomsticks.”

She stops to clap and cheer as a Slytherin Chaser puts a Quaffle through one of the hoops.

Which brings up another subject of the sport: the terminology.

Rowling taught her readers about quidditch and its rules in the pages of her seven books. Matches are played between two teams of seven players riding broomsticks, using four balls and six hoops. The player positions include three Chasers, one Keeper, two Beaters and a Seeker for each team. The balls have their own names, as well: Quaffles, which the Chasers put through the hoops to gain points, Bludgers, which Beaters try to distract opposing teammembers with, and the Golden Snitch, a tiny ball with wings that is incredibly fast and difficult to catch. Once the Seeker—whose sole purpose in the match is to catch the Snitch—catches it, the match is over.

In real-life quidditch, these terms are used as well. Since the players are all “Potter” fans, the language and terms come to them like second nature. The main differences between wizarding world quidditch and real-life quidditch are, 1. players run instead of fly, and 2. the Snitch is not a ball, but a very fast—and sometimes mischievous—person.

But despite its origins, quidditch is like any other sport. Coming back to those people who may show up to matches time and again to point and laugh, every sport has its haters. In some cultures, American football has a negative connotation, associated with drunk fans and ignorant viewers. To some people, baseball is long and dull. Many deem golf a non-sport, and although soccer is known as the most popular sport in the world, its popularity has been slow to catch on in the U.S.

So being laughed at is a non-issue for quidditch players and everyone involved, who are too busy having fun and acting like people would at any sport event. The bleachers are filled with family members and fans with T-shirts that read “Weasley Is My King” (in reference to “Potter” character, Ron Weasley) and “Proud to be a Hufflepuff” (one of the four Houses, or teams). The crowd roars with shouts of “Way to go, Ravenclaw!” and “Watch out for that Bludger!” They wear their team colors, too: blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, black or green for Slytherin and orange for Gryffindor or the varsity team, which is the official team that gets to compete and go to the World Cup in November.

Others fight to get involved in any way possible, such as anthropology major Ashley Richardson.

“I love Harry Potter,” she says. “When I found out UT had a quidditch team, I was so excited. But I can’t really play because I have asthma, so referee is the next best thing.”

Richardson is a referee-in-training and stands on the sidelines to try to maintain order when the game gets a little too physical. She’s a die-hard Potterhead and was even a part of Pottermore, the “Harry Potter” fansite that will open for the general public in October, on the second day it opened for a select few. After all, if something sets Longhorns apart, it’s intensity. Even though there are over 200 universities practicing the sport, Texas Quidditch knows this isn’t only about loyalty to the world Rowling created, but bringing that fanaticism to a university that’s always on the leading edge and eager to try new things, eventually turning them into tradition.

“I know quidditch comes from England, but here at UT we always take things to the next level,” says Mariana Sada, a senior computer science major. “It’s all about showing other schools that UT dominates every sport, even make-believe ones.”

Sada speaks with the fervor of a Potterhead with burnt orange blood running through her veins. Sure, UT won’t be building a quidditch stadium with a jumbotron to capture the Golden Snitch’s every move any time soon. But the eagerness of the players and dedication of the fans, who wake up at 9 AM on a Saturday to cheer for their prefered team, makes one feel like history’s in the making at UT.

A heavy murmur from the crowd takes over and a girl wearing a “Don’t Mess With Texas” T-shirt stands up and points, yelling out, “Here comes the Snitch!”

Suddenly the yellow bandana flashes into view, the Seeker rushing after him, fast and somehow looking graceful, even with the broomstick between his legs. People from the surrounding fields stop what they’re doing—playing catch, soccer practice—and turn to look at the two quidditch players who run so fast they could trick the eye, it almost looks like the boys could fly.

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