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Quidditch Jumps from the Page to the Playing Field

At Boise State, a fantasy sport from Hogwarts turns into reality

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The players formed two lines facing each other across the field. When signaled, they charged at a row of volleyballs arranged on the field's center line--makeshift brooms jerking stiffly between their legs--and swarmed between the goals on each side of the field, which had been made from hula hoops.

The cloud of players, brooms and volleyballs had roved close to the sideline near a concrete sidewalk, where one player was checked so hard that, for an instant, she was completely airborne before slamming onto the path behind the Albertsons Library at Boise State University.

"If I see another hit on the sidewalk, I'm canceling practice," said Boise State Quidditch Captain Stewart Driflot--yes, that's his real name--as the downed player stood and brushed off the heels of her hands.

The original Quidditch is a creation of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter young adult novels--a game played by the young witches and wizards studying at Hogwarts School, who fly high on magic brooms above a Quidditch field, trying to score points by catching the snitch, a bewitched, fast-flying ball.

Quidditch, as played by the Boise State team, is a coeducational sport that contains borrowed elements of rugby, dodgeball and lacrosse. The object is to score points by throwing a volleyball past a goalkeeper through a hoop goal while eluding "bludgers," who try to temporarily remove other players from the action with dodgeballs. To end the game, players must catch the "snitch"--a ball attached by a wristband (or in a sock) to a neutral player. Players must at all times keep a broom between their legs.

It's a fearsomely physical sport. Driflot, a sophomore at Boise State, has seen numerous injuries during his tenure as captain of the Boise State Abraxans, including cracked ribs, twists, pulls and sprains. This past season, he tore a leg muscle at a tournament in Arizona. But, he said, "the players know what they're getting into."

Since Quidditch's reputed beginnings in 2005 at Middlebury College, hundreds of teams have cropped up across the globe and an international body has codified its more than 700 rules into a 172-page rulebook. According to The Atlantic, in the spring of 2013, an estimated 1,500 players and 12,000 spectators descended on Kissimmee, Fla., for the Muggle Quidditch World Cup VI, "the highlight of the Muggle Quidditch year."

In October 2012, when Driflot assumed the captain's position for Boise State, the team was practically nonexistent: Driflot, whose captainship represented the first time he'd "undertaken anything leadership-wise," was building a team from scratch. The first batch of players (all 12-14 of them) were, at first, unprepared for Quidditch's athletic rigors.

"Half of us were [dressed] in jeans and button-ups," Driflot said.

Not long after, a fresh seriousness began to permeate the Boise State Abraxans, in part because of team manager Kym Couch, who has helped arrange team funding and equipment through players and Boise State grants (Couch said she's the manager "because I'm really good at paperwork.")

Stiff competition on the field followed under Couch and Driflot's leadership. They held the first Abraxans meeting in October 2012, and by Valentine's Day 2013, the team was officially a Boise State student organization. In March 2013, the Abraxans defeated the Moscow Manticores of the University of Idaho at the Spring Break Throwdown.

In November 2013, the Abraxans participated in Western Cup V in Tempe, Ariz., where the team competed against (and lost to) Arizona State University (150-50), the Silicon Valley Screwts (130-0), Utah (210-30) and the University of Arizona (130-40). Inclement weather forced the teams to play indoors, where they competed barefoot. No one had brought shoes appropriate for indoor turf.

Despite the losses, Couch was pleased with the team's performance this past season.

"Although we did not win any of our games, were able to score against three-quarters of the teams we played in our bracket," Couch wrote in an email.

For Couch, as for several Abraxans, a source of passion for the game is becoming a referee. Potential referees must first pass a written test, scoring at least 80 percent. The second phase is a field test administered by a current referee, followed by a probationary period. There are three different levels of referees: assistant, snitch and head referee. Couch passed the head referee written examination in the early morning hours of Oct. 22, 2013.

To her delight, she and a few teammates were able to adjudicate several Quidditch matches at the Western Cup, and Couch looks forward to her head referee field examination this month at the Snow Cup in Salt Lake City.

Casey Thompson's love of the sport, however, came first from a love of the books and a zeal for gameplay. Thompson, majoring in material science engineering and creative writing, is an athlete who has played football, soccer and lacrosse, and describes himself as a "team sports sort of person." He has also read the Harry Potter books 17 times.

"I'm really a geek at heart," he said.

Like many of his Abraxan teammates, Thompson discovered the sport by accident: "I was on the [Boise State] quad and looked over and said, 'Hey, those are Quidditch hoops!'"

That season at the Rocky Mountain Championship, he broke his hands after a rough tackle but kept playing.

"I'm not worried about our players, but I am worried about other teams that play a bit more aggressively," he said.

The sport stresses competition, but it also stresses inclusivity. According to the "two-minimum gender rule," each team must field at least two players whose gender identity is different from at least two other players.

Still, Thompson said many mischaracterize quidditch as indulgence in fanboy enthusiasm.

"There's this sense that we're living in Harry Potter-world," Thompson said.

For Thompson, that misses the true allure of the sport: competition.

"They don't understand the competitive level of the game. People practice a lot and travel a long way for these tournaments," he said.