It’s the week before nationals, and the University of Maryland is a top contender, so when captains Mack Morgan and Ben Whong address the team, their message carries a sense of urgency. Texas, a powerhouse program, landed in Maryland’s group and the schools will likely face each other. Whong tells the team that Texas’s players are used to man-to-man defenses — he’s watched some film — so Maryland’s zone should throw them off.
“Texas is big,” Morgan says, “but I think they're very beatable.”
The players listen, then start scrimmaging. For close to two hours, every athletic feat takes place with a plastic pipe, each about three feet long, held between their legs.
This team is used to questions, and they have answers ready: Yes, quidditch, the magical competition created by J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter book series, has taken root as a real-world sport. No, the players don’t fly. Yes, the pipes are called brooms, the terms perhaps being the game’s strongest remaining link to the books.
The Maryland quidditch team has a 27-3 record and is ranked No. 1 in the country, but it still exists in relative obscurity. Fellow students walk by the practice without adjusting their pace, but they keep their heads turned toward the training. Sometimes onlookers pull out their phones, capturing what seems like a strange combination between playful chaos and a serious sport.
This weekend, questions and questioning looks will subside. The mixed-gender, full-contact competition will take over a sports complex in Round Rock, Tex., for U.S. Quidditch Cup 12, the national championship tournament with more than 1,500 athletes from 83 participating teams, split into community and college divisions.
Last year, Maryland lost to Texas in the Elite Eight. Morgan compares his team to Gonzaga basketball, winning easily during the regular season because the Mid-Atlantic region isn’t that strong. Meanwhile, Texas schools beat up on each other all year, hurting their records but honing their quality. Whong called the Southwest region the “heart of quidditch.”
The sport has roots in Harry Potter, but these aren’t fan clubs. Team discussions center on strategy and preparation. At practice, players don’t analyze their favorite chapters, not even the one about the Quidditch World Cup final, when Ireland won but Bulgaria’s Viktor Krum caught the snitch.
In fact, at least a quarter of Maryland’s roster of about 25 players hasn’t read the series.
Since 2005, when the sport began at Middlebury College in Vermont, quidditch has evolved with the focus shifting more toward the merits of the game than its origin.
Initially, players carried brooms, but now bristles aren’t allowed, according to the 185-page rule book. Capes have also been banned for safety reasons. Earlier World Cups, the annual tournaments that preceded the U.S. Quidditch Cups, created festival-like atmospheres. Through the years, rules have become more formalized with referee training and qualification procedures, as well as the formation of a national governing body.
Sarah Woolsey, the executive director of U.S. Quidditch who was part of Maryland’s inaugural team in 2010, sees the Harry Potter books and quidditch as separate passions. Quidditch, she said, prides itself on inclusivity, whether that’s related to gender identity, athletic background or degree of Harry Potter fandom.
“The sport does attract a lot of athletes who may not necessarily even have much of a connection to Harry Potter,” said Alicia Radford, a co-founder of the national governing body. Nonetheless, she said, “I think the sport still serves such a valuable purpose for people who were not athletes or who have never felt at home on a sports team or in any kind of athletic situation, because of that Harry Potter connection.”
Though reading the books or watching the movies is not a prerequisite to playing the game, sometimes it sparks the introduction.
Whong’s mom read the books to him and his brother at a young age, and he remembers her voices for different characters. He recognized the trio of quidditch hoops at a campus-organization fair his freshman year and signed up. On the other end, Abby Potter, who avoided the books in part because of her last name, joined because she heard quidditch combined elements of rugby, dodgeball and handball.
“We kind of forget that we're associated with Harry Potter until someone reminds you,” said Melissa Smith, a senior on Maryland’s team.
The rules are similar to the game in the books — with adjustments, of course, to account for the lack of magic. In the simplest terms, there are seven players per side, multiple balls and goals worth 10 points apiece. The game ends when the golden snitch — in the books, a magical ball that whizzes through the air, but here, a neutral player who runs with the snitch, a tennis ball held in a sock attached to shorts — is captured, with the team with the most points declared the winner.
As Gryffindor team captain Oliver Wood explains the game in the first book of the series, Harry Potter says, “So — that’s sort of like basketball on broomsticks with six hoops, isn’t it?”
Then, of course, they do it all with broomstick-like objects between their legs, which “helps not take ourselves too seriously,” Smith said. “If we start to, it’s like, ‘Look, there’s a PVC pipe between your legs.’”
The priority is winning, though, and the competitiveness is genuine. Practice started with a fast-break drill because Maryland likes to score in transition, and after lots of scrimmaging, the session ended with a shooting drill from a few yards out, even though the team prefers solid passes that lead to easy dunks.
“The leadership when I was a freshman was like, 'We’re playing this sport and we’re trying to beat all the people, the nerds who play it, who are really into Harry Potter,’” Whong said, “which is funny, but we’re all still into Harry Potter, too.”
Maryland Quidditch, an official student club that receives some funding from the university to offset costs, has won the last three regional championships. Aside from Texas, Whong said, Maryland might be the most recognized staple in college quidditch.
Texas, which won three straight national titles beginning in 2013, has a non-playing coach and occasional film sessions at the coach’s house or in classrooms on campus. While discussing Texas’s defensive style, Luke Meissner, a third-year member of the team, hesitated, worried that providing too much information could create a disadvantage.
After Maryland finishes practice, the captains briefly gather the team again. They sound like coaches in a locker room, not college students on a Sunday afternoon. Whong says the group is hitting its stride at the right time and they’re mentally tougher than in previous years. Morgan reminds the players they’re part of a top-ranked team, so he says, “Let’s act like that when we show up.” The expectation is to win. And there’s no mention of the books that provided a strong foundation for a game that now stands on its own.