Quidditch team growing by magical proportions

Kansas sophomore Jordan Callison, Holton, tries to evade defenders during a quidditch practice Wednesday, April 24, 2013 behind Robinson Gymnasium on the campus of Kansas University.

Kansas junior Chris Fellows, Kansas City, Mo., left, tries to wrestle the ball away from senior Hai Nguyen during a quidditch practice Wednesday, April 24, 2013 behind Robinson Gymnasium on the campus of Kansas University.

On a weekday evening during the Kansas University school year, you might see them on a fenced-in field near the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center: students, male and female, hurling volleyballs and dodgeballs in seemingly every direction, making diving saves, circling and weaving while holding sticks between their legs.

It can seem dizzying to a new spectator. But it helps if you’ve ever read a Harry Potter book.

These students are members of the KU Quidditch club, which has grown from a group of 12 friends who signed up for a tournament in fall 2010 into a squad of more than 60 who compete for spots on two 21-person teams. They take part in a sport played by wizards in the Harry Potter novels — but they say this real-life version of the game is taking on a life of its own.

Some of KU’s players have never even read a word of the books.

“I think I read half of the first one,” said Keir Rudolph, who broke out as a star seeker for the team as a freshman during the 2012-13 season.

What’s a seeker? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

In Quidditch — either the fictional form played high in the air aboard broomsticks or this earthbound version — each team has seven players on the field at once. Three of these players are chasers. They try to throw a volleyball (a “quaffle,” in Harry Potter lexicon) through three hoops, atop poles of varying heights, on either end of a field. They also try to stop the other team’s three chasers from doing the same. Each quaffle through a goal scores 10 points.

Two other players, called beaters, try to whip dodge balls at the chasers (head shots are legal), thereby sentencing them to run back to their goal before they can re-enter the game.

“It’s a really nice stress reliever,” said sophomore Bonnie McDonnell, “being able to just, like, hit people with dodge balls the whole game.”

One player is a goalkeeper. That one’s easy enough to understand.

Then we get to the seeker, who spends the game pursuing the snitch. A tiny winged ball that flies and spurts around in the books, in real-life Quidditch it is a tennis ball stuffed inside a sock, dangling from the waistband of a volunteer. Grabbing a snitch gets your team 30 points — and ends the game.

The seeker, as in the books, tends to get a good deal of glory, said Wil Kenney, who played keeper as a freshman last season.

“They get lifted on the shoulders,” Kenney said.

And ah, yes: Each of these players must hold a broomstick between his or her legs. At all times.

This functions a bit like the dribble in basketball, junior Colby Soden says. It provides an element of challenge — players essentially have to do everything one-handed — and it keeps players from hurtling everywhere at full speed.

It also lends the game a bit of, well, charm. And humility.

“You can’t take yourself too seriously when you have a broom between your legs,” Soden said.

The game, as it is in the books, is played by men and women together. Each team must have at least two players of each gender on the field at all times.

“It’s a great sport for gender equality,” McDonnell said. “Girls can be as good as guys at anything.”

Collegiate Quidditch began in 2005 at Middlebury College in Vermont, and it got going at KU in September 2010 when 12 friends decided to field a team for a tournament at Wichita State University.

Hai Nguyen, who graduated in 2013 and served as a captain in 2012, was one of those 12.

“We’d never heard of Quidditch before, never seen it played before,” Nguyen said. “But it looked fun on the YouTube videos.”

It’s grown fast as word as spread. About 65 members had joined by the 2012-13 season, competing to be part of two 21-player squads that travel to competitions. The “blue” team (the varsity, essentially) was at one point during the season ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Quidditch Association, a governing body that establishes rules and organizes an annual Quidditch World Cup.

That achievement was noted by KU’s official @KUNews Twitter account.

KU made it to the round of eight in the 2013 World Cup, held in Kissimmee, Fla. It was the first year teams had to qualify for the cup through regional competitions, with 80 teams making the cut in two different divisions.

The team used to play with hoops that Nguyen built himself, but now manufacturers that supply Quidditch equipment have sprung up. KU staff mentioned the squad to incoming students at orientation last year, Nguyen said.

“At first, I used to be embarrassed to talk about it,” Nguyen said. “Nowadays, I’m actually proud of it.”

Harry Potter fans remain the easiest to recruit to the team, Soden said, but something about the sport is making it grow on its own. More and more of the top teams around the country are recruiting students with backgrounds in other sports, said Nguyen, a former soccer player.

But as long as players run around with brooms between their legs, it will likely never separate entirely from its wizard roots.

“There will always be that sense of magic somewhere in there,” Rudolph said.