Snitch Happens

“Brooms down, eyes closed! Snitch, you may now move!” The referee, dressed in traditional stripes, begins each match the same way. The teams line up, seven a side, on opposite ends of the ovular field, knees to the ground, brooms between their legs.

There is a calculated chaos in the opening of a Quidditch match, when the referee yells out “brooms up!” and the teams scramble to the middle of the pitch trying to grab possession of the flaccid volleyball which serves as a Quaffle, and the three slightly deflated, oversized dodge-balls which act as Bludgers.

Some teams send their fastest man forward to kick the Quaffle back to his chasers, others, like the Guelph Griffons, use a decidedly more spectacular approach.

“Number nine on Guelph got me in the chest off the start with a somersault. I would be upset, but it was too awesome!” Suraj Singh is the founder of the Ryerson Ridgebacks Quidditch team, and he is talking excitedly about their match with the Griffons – the final of four matches Ryerson played on Sunday – during the first ever Ryerson Invitational Quidditch Tournament.

“Despite the miserable weather, I’m really pleased with everything today. Every match was challenging, which is great,” Singh says, while the rain pounds down in thick drops late in the evening.

Quidditch today is a much more Muggle affair than J.K. Rowling’s lot in the Harry Potter series, but it is a serious sport to those who compete.

“Other teams have playbooks and set plays, and practice twice a week,” says first-year Ryerson student Erin Whittier, the Ridgebacks top seeker. “I chose Ryerson partially because of the Quidditch team.” She is serious when she says this. “It’s a sport, but everyone has a bond over nerdiness.”

Adapted from the Potter novels by students at Middlebury College, Vermont, in 2005, Quidditch is now played at over 300 universities and high schools in the United States and officially in at least a dozen other countries.

There exists an International Quidditch Association (IQA), which was created by a graduated member of Middlebury’s founding team. Each year since 2008, the IQA has held a Quidditch World Cup, and Middlebury has won it every year, dominating the field.

Ryerson went to the 2011 World Cup in New York City where they faced a team of Marines in one of their matches. It was an eye-opening experience for them, and a sign of how hard they would have to work, to compete internationally.

The Canadian Quidditch scene is a far cry from its humble beginnings just a few years ago. According to an IQA report on Canadian teams, when the University of Victoria began their Quidditch squad in 2010, their brooms were just sticks found in a forest near campus.

Today’s teams use quality, uniformly black, IQA regulation brooms, with the bristles tapered and matted together for better aerodynamics, and the shafts specially made for zipping around the pitch with better grip.

“Most of [our funding] is out of pocket. This year we have been officially recognised by the Ryerson Athletic Centre as a club, so membership dues help,” says Singh, who oversaw the purchasing of all the regulation equipment, including the golden hoops attached to PVC pipes which serve as the goals – three of them at each end, standing at three different heights.

Haley Pierce is the team captain, having joined the club a few months after it was founded by Singh.

Sundays tournament, held in the Quadrangle, is only an exhibition, but for Pierce it offers the chance to size up the competition for the upcoming season. Four teams have joined Ryerson for the round robin style tourney: University of Toronto, University of Toronto Scarborough, Guelph, and McMaster – UTSC even has its own unique name for the team (the Nifflers) much like Ryerson has the Ridgebacks.

“Guelph is the mystery team,” says Pierce. “We’ve never seen them play before, but they look up for it.”

The real rivals though, are the same downtown opponents Ryerson has been competing against for some time. “We hate U of T,” offers Ridgebacks player Stephanie Myers.

At the end of October 2010, Ryerson faced off against the University of Toronto in a field behind Trinity College. U of T supporters were wearing their robes from the college giving them a decidedly more Hogwartsian look than their Ryerson counterparts, and they rained boos upon Ryerson’s Ridgebacks, creating an atmosphere which Pierce recalls as “really intimidating” and which fostered a healthy rivalry between the Toronto clubs.

“I’m nervous, and excited, and I think I’m going to throw up!” Pierce races off to join her team on the pitch, where they will face U of T for the first time since that meeting, but first McMaster awaits in their plain white tees and maroon shorts – at 8 players, they are the smallest squad there by far.

The Ryerson Ridgebacks take the pitch against the McMaster Marauders. The opening dash and clash for the Quaffle and Bludgers is violent, but Ryerson come away with the Quaffle. A broom loses its bristles – the rider comes crashing to the ground.

Ryerson’s chasers are rampaging through the Marauders defense to take a commanding 40 to nothing lead, but McMaster will not go down quietly, as they claw back two scores. With the Ridgebacks up 50 to 20, the Marauders only hope is for their seeker to capture the snitch, a move worth 30 points and which ends the game.

The snitch makes a bad move, stranding himself on the steps to Kerr Hall Gym. Both seekers cover the stairs. Nothing left but for him to leap off the platform into a tree and maneuver a daring escape. A Marauder goes down hard trying to grab the snitch, he is making them miss left and right. Watching the mind games between seeker and snitch is one of the most entertaining aspects of the matches.

Their work pays off, McMaster grab the snitch, tying the match at 50 apiece, forcing overtime. Ryerson prevail in the extra frame, having grabbed the snitch themselves to end it.

However magical such moments of triumph might be, the realities of the earthbound game are never far away, and on this day, the magic ended in a very real way; no amount of wand waving or incantations could replace the ambulance needed to take a Ryerson player to hospital after a rather severe looking head injury during the Ridgebacks third match of the day – their only loss.

Though the falls are admittedly shorter, and there are no flying Bludgers, Muggle Quidditch is, like it’s magical inspiration, a contact sport, and injuries happen. Broom-burn is an accepted part of the game, but that doesn’t make it any less a pain in the ass says Pierce.

Muggle Quidditch is a sport much like dodge-ball, handball and rugby rolled into one package and stuck on a broomstick. The teams are a mix of strong athletes, and fervent Potter fans, making for some interesting matchups – number 20 on Guelph is particularly gargantuan, and Singh describes running into him like hitting a brick wall.

Under looming darkness, and a spitting rain, Ryerson take the field for their final game against Guelph, anxious to put their prior defeat behind them. The ominous brooding sky, the windswept rain, and the desire to put an exclamation point at the end of the tournament give this game the feel of something a little more than ordinary; a little magic hangs in the damp air.

That feeling is amplified by the guttural chant ringing from the tight circle of Guelph players before the match. Their forceful shouts are rhythmic in the same way that the New Zealand All Blacks rugby squad shouts fear into the opposition with their famous “Haka” ritual.

“Kia Rite!” They chant. “Kia Rite”. Prepare yourself.

The game is muddy, it is intense, there are more than a few rattling tackles, and players will occasionally take a ball or broom to the face. Quidditch, real Quidditch, is a fandom where bodies are on the line, and with the sport growing, having the chance to compete is no longer good enough. Ryerson is here to win.

A Ryerson player takes the field to call the opening draw, the opposing teams on their knees, eyes closed, the quiet before the bludgeoning; “You can spend this time thinking about the meaning of life” he intones. “Quidditch!” comes the resounding reply.