Tufflepuffs seek to reassert themselves amidst changing Quidditch landscape

Sophomore chaser/seeker Donovan Brady runs the quaffle up the field during Tufts' 80–120* loss to Texas Tech on April 14. Courtesy Isabella Gong

Disclaimer: Ana Sophia Acosta is an executive video editor at the Daily and a member of the Quidditch team. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

Bored of their dorm’s bocce league, Xander Manshel and Alex Benepe of Middlebury College looked only to indulge their Harry Potter cravings when they took to their quad on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2005. Thirteen years, 12 rulebooks, 10 World Cups and over 500 teams around the world later, Quidditch continues to mystify and astonish the Muggle world.

Whether it is practice on Tufts’ residential quad or on Bello Field, the six opposing rings on a basketball court-sized field stick out like a sports team eating at Carmichael Dining Center. As the butt of campus tour guide jokes, Tufts Quidditch is no stranger to ridicule. The Tufflepuffs are well aware of the ubiquitous incredulity they face.

“If we got paid every time a lacrosse or football player asked, ‘Hey, where’s Harry?’ [or] ‘Where’s the Snitch?’ during practice, we’d be rich,” junior co-captain Finn McGarghan said.

The sport spread across small liberal arts schools in the Northeast via word of mouth and email chains, and within a few years of its inception at Middlebury, Carly Boxer (LA ’13) founded Tufts’ team in 2009.

The Tufflepuffs burst onto the national Quidditch scene, finishing second at the 2010 International Quidditch Association (IQA) World Cup IV, now named the US Quidditch (USQ) Cup. The tournament was played in New York City — the first time it was not held at Middlebury — and included 24 teams that qualified via regional play. Over 10,000 spectators attended the two-day event that was covered by 40 media outlets around the U.S.

But the sport that Manshel and Benepe introduced to the world all those years ago is a far cry from what it is today. What was once a hobby for Harry Potter enthusiasts is now a legitimate sport. Its rising popularity validates its participants but shifts the game away from its origins, and as Quidditch becomes more competitive, it is beginning to exclude the very demographic it was designed for.

“We get big Harry Potter fans showing up to tryouts who quickly realize it’s a real sport. They’ll get tackled three times in their first game, and we’ll never see them again,” coach and former captain Greg Bento (E ’16) said.

Tufts has not re-discovered its 2010 form: The team has failed to enter the nation’s top 30 since the 2014–15 season, when it finished 11th. Last year, the Tufflepuffs finished 47th in the nation, according to USQ. According to McGarghan, the Tufflepuffs barely qualified for the 64-team US Quidditch Cup, finishing 13th out of 14 teams at the Northeastern Regional Championship.

One perpetrator is the rulebook. The inaugural 39-page rulebook written by Benepe in 2005 limited physical contact and encouraged strategic play. It also decreed all players must wear capes and use brooms with bristles.

But as the game evolved to allow full contact, including tackling, schools with access to better athletes quickly overtook smaller, more experienced teams. Middlebury, home to the sport’s inventors in 2005, won the first five national championships through 2011, but did not qualify for the tournament in 2012 and has not won since.

Meanwhile, player collisions led to broken brooms causing gruesome, bloody injuries. Players now wear jerseys and can use PVC pipes between 32 and 42 inches long, according to the 187-page 12th edition of USQ’s official rulebook.

“The rules now make the game more dependent on athleticism,” junior beater Serena Monteiro said. “You cannot recruit anyone off of the street. It’s getting more competitive — inevitable for a sport that we want to be growing.”

Nowadays, teams like Texas A&M and University of California, Berkeley —  schools with student bodies of over 30,000 that can attract ex-Div. I athletes —  dominate the US Quidditch Cup.

“When the sport first started, everyone started on the same playing field. It was so new for everyone,” Bento said. “As it grew, bigger schools had bigger student populations to pull from, so naturally there’s more talent on their team.”

In the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch and gender equality, there is a limit on the number of players who identify as the same gender that can be on the field at any one time. These days, big men often dominate matches, physically overpowering opponents. The development does not faze Monteiro, who attributed it to Quidditch’s quest for recognition.

“Unfortunately — and this is just how it is — if you have big, strong guys playing, you have more legitimacy attached to your sport,” Monteiro said.

The development is a direct contradiction to the origins of a sport that valued a fun, friendly attitude and catered to a by-and-large non-athletic demographic.

“You see a couple Harry Potter fans … but they’re also great athletes,” Monteiro said. “Now it’s dominated by this competitive rulebook and its grown intensity … it’s losing a core aspect of the sport.”

Junior beater Emma Wolfe has seen players break legs and collarbones, tear ACLs and incur concussions — nothing close to the physicality of Manshel’s original Quidditch. But for a sport looking to grow, Wolfe thinks this shift is inevitable.

“We have a new player who joined our team because he can tackle people. It’s a big draw,” Wolfe said. “We’ll get more legitimacy if we have more tough, physical play and physical people involved in it.”

But there is another reason for the game’s increasing physicality. In “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), George Weasley says: “Rough game, Quidditch.” His twin, Fred, quickly responds: “Brutal, but no one’s died in years.” Bento thinks that Quidditch’s newly-developed physicality is an effort to stay true to the sport.

“In the films, people are just flying around punching people in the face,” Bento said. “They’re trying to keep that aspect true to form.”

In the midst of Quidditch’s transition from a young, tame sport to an aggressive one, the Tufflepuffs played one of their best seasons ever in 2015, finishing 11th in the country. Captained by Team USA player and 2014 IQA World Cup gold medalist Hannah DeBaets (LA ’16), the performance was Tufts’ best since 2010.

“[DeBaets] was very much like, ‘I’m a very good player. I’m going to make my teammates very good players,’ and it worked really well,” Bento, then a member of the team, said. “We had a non-stop ‘We’re gonna win’ mentality. We won the Northeast Regional [Championship]. We made cuts from the team. It actually drove a lot of the kids away because it was too serious for them.”

Perhaps that sort of mentality is what success in Quidditch now requires, especially for a small school like Tufts. But Bento understands that he has competing interests to balance. As captain in 2016, Bento decided to form separate practicing and traveling squads; then, players could grow into the sport and still enjoy a fun atmosphere. It also makes the roster spots more competitive. As coach, his goals remain similar.

“I want to keep the Tufts team a mix of competitive and fun,” Bento said. “That’s the challenge. Most people treat it as a real sport — I like to treat it like a real sport. But you also have to understand that some people are here for the Harry Potter references.”

In an effort to return Tufts to its once-formidable form, Bento and his friend, Nik Jablonski, started coming out to practices last year, and this year, they took a coaching course to be the Tufflepuffs’ official coaches.

“Not to toot my own horn, but having someone who’s played for five-and-a-half years is major,” Bento said. “You can totally tell when a team has a coach and when it doesn’t.”

This year, the team competes in the new Massachusetts Quidditch Conference (MQC), which includes some of the oldest Quidditch teams in the world such as Middlebury, Emerson and BU, the latter two which were founded in 2008. The Tufflepuffs currently sit at No. 21 in the country, according to USQ, with three wins and two losses. Bento hopes to win the Northeast Regional Championship, and recreate the success of his junior year.

Since Manshel and Benepe raided broom closets in 2005, the Tufflepuffs have witnessed the sport grow from its infancy to a worldwide phenomenon, navigating the rapidly changing sport with guile and hiccups alike. Tufts Quidditch has maneuvered amidst the chaos, staying true to its values while striving to compete in a competitive, if not quirky, sport.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described US Quidditch’s gender maximum rule. The article has been updated to clarify that the rule sets a limit on the number of players of the same gender who can be on the field. The Daily regrets this error.