On crisp fall afternoons, Godwin and Hillside fields on the campus of James Madison University are magically transformed from mortal patches of green into bewitching battlegrounds.
More than two dozen JMU students have banded together to compete in a grounded version of the high-flying Harry Potter sport Quidditch. Author J.K. Rowling's creation, a mainstay at Potter fan conferences around the world, has taken hold on college campuses, where students versed in the popular adventure series have formed their own teams, leagues and associations.
In Quidditch, two teams of seven players, each holding a broom between their legs, try to rack up points by having their "chasers" throw a ball, known as the quaffle, through one of their opponent's three ring-shaped goals. Meanwhile another group, the "beaters," attempts to hit the chasers with "bludgers" (dodgeballs), sending them back to their starting position. The game is over when one team's "seeker" catches the "golden snitch" — in this case, a tennis ball inside a sock.
Daniel Kim, a senior history and education major and a co-captain of the JMU Marauders, describes Quidditch as "sort of a mix between rugby, dodgeball and tag." The pace is quick and lively, and matches against teams from other schools, including Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia, can get pretty intense. The Marauder's preparation for a recent match against the University of Richmond included a detailed scouting report on the team's "keeper" (goalie), courtesy of rival VCU.
Still, the players don't take themselves too seriously. "There's a balance between silly and competitive," Kim says. "I mean, you're running around with a broomstick between your legs."
"I do it for the sport," says Jacob Poole, an 18-year-old freshman "chaser" from Gainesville. "It's good exercise, but it's also a lot of fun."
Sophomore Rebecca Lamb, 20, of Fairfax didn't know JMU had a Quidditch team until this year. A high-school athlete and avid Harry Potter fan, she jumped at the chance to play. Lamb says she enjoys the rough-and-tumble nature of the sport. "The guys, they definitely don't take it easy on you. I come away with bruises after every practice."
The Marauders formed on a whim last fall. "It started out as a joke," Kim says. "We had just come back from one of the [Harry Potter] movies, and we thought it might be cool to start a team and give it a try." An ad in the JMU student newspaper, "The Breeze," helped lure 25 students to an initial meeting in October 2010. The next month, the team was playing in its first match.
As members of the Virginia Quidditch League, the Marauders hold practices on Friday afternoons and compete on Sundays. The league schedules matches and helps promote and organize tournaments. The fall season culminates in the Quidditch World Cup, which invites the best collegiate squads in the country to New York City in November. Because JMU is not yet a member of the International Quidditch Association — the governing body of the sport — it is not eligible for a ranking. But the Marauders have beaten some highly ranked teams, including VCU, and in the coming years, Kim thinks the Marauders can become a top-10 college Quidditch team.
Win, lose or draw, Quidditch appears to have landed on the JMU campus to stay.
"It's a community," says Lamb, who plans to travel to New York next month to cheer on some friends who play for Virginia Tech. "It's not just the books and the movies. You have a instant friendship."