AUSTIN, Texas Nov. 10, 2010— -- Five years ago, Alex Benepe and Xander Manshel wanted to find something more intense to do with their Sunday afternoons at Middlebury College in Vermont other than the sedate sport of bocce bowling. So the two Harry Potter fans invented the "muggle" version of quidditch.
Five years later, the wacky sport has spread to more than 200 campuses and this weekend the fourth annual "Quidditch World Cup" has grown so large that more than 60 teams will compete during the two-day tournament over Nov. 13 and 14, and the tournament has been moved to New York City.
There is even a push for the NCAA, the arbiter of college sports, to sanction quidditch as, well, a real sport.
It's real enough for the schools that college recruiters citing their attractions now routinely mention that they have a quidditch team.
Quidditch hardly looks like the serious business of college football. It's more in the league of ultimate frisbee, another sport that emerged from the free-wheeling style of non-varsity athletes and has spread throughout the country.
While quidditch players in the Harry Potter series fly around a field on broomsticks, the non-magical "muggles" like Benepe run around the field with a broomstick between their legs. Because they have to keep hold of their broomsticks, they must catch and pass the ball one-handed.
"From the first moment I played Quidditch I loved it," said Benepe, who now lives in New York.
Modeled after J.K. Rowling's popular series, matches are held on circular fields with teams of seven. There are three rings at opposite ends of the field and team chasers try to throw dodge balls or bean bags through the hoops. Bludgers try to block them by throwing balls at them, and a keeper defends the hoops. If a chaser is hit by a bludger, that player must drop the ball and freeze for several seconds -- about the time it would take for a magical player to get back on a broomstick.
The big points are scored, however, when a team's "seeker" can grab the golden snitch, often a tennis ball attached to the shorts of a player who periodically sprints through the field.
"Everything sort of clicks when the snitch is running and the seeker is chasing him. Such an adrenaline rush," Benepe said.
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Benepe serves as founder and commissioner of the International Quidditch Association. The non-profit organization aids communities and schools in creating Quidditch teams and gaining league recognition. The group also hosts tournaments and is in charge of the official rulebook.
IQA's main goal this semester is to draw a large crowd to the fourth annual "Quidditch World Cup," which has moved from Middlebury campus to Dewitt Clinton Park in New York City. As the Nov. 1 deadline approaches, more than 60 teams are already signed up to take the field on Nov. 13 and 14.
Middleburry senior and Quidditch commissioner Kate Olen says her team, named Constant Vigilance, recently won the Middlebury Cup and will be representing her school. She says the team will be missing the home turf advantage.
"It's a little intimidating," Olen said. "No matter what the stage, typical Sunday night is always spent at the same spot on the 'beach.' Now we're moving onto the national stage and it gives me butterflies."
Some competitors don't think national recognition should stop at the World Cup.
Valeria Fischman, a player at the University of Maryland, is pushing for the NCAA to recognize Quidditch as a varsity sport. She says the game has the potential to decrease illiteracy and childhood obesity "as long as the kids are careful with their brooms."
"If a child has a baseball player as their idol, they'll go out and join a local team," Fischman said. "It's the same thing with Harry Potter. Children aren't only engaged in the book more, they also want to go out and play in the magic first hand."
One thing confounding the NCAA application is that the NCAA has separate criteria for men's and women's sports, but Quidditch teams are coed.
The Quidditch enthusiast also has to collect 50 signatures from college athletic directors supporting the game. After that, the NCAA considers sponsorship and official recognition.
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University of Florida quidditch captain Nicholas Morado says this type of validation will "remove the autonomy of IQA."
"The last thing we need in our sport is the hand of the NCAA," Morado said.
Quidditch organizations vary from campus to campus, with some meeting once every month and others practicing weekly. Ivy Leaguers and Big 12 schools in the south are just a few that take part in competition.
At the University of Texas at Austin, members are divided into four groups based on house names from Harry Potter, Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. Three of the teams are recreational while the fourth team, Gryffindor, competes against other universities in their conference.
Sophomore business major Jacob Adlis, who serves at the club's director of internal affairs, says the sport requires athleticism and willingness to "get roughed up."
"The ideal snitch is someone who's run cross country and done wrestling," Adlis said.
Powerhouse Maryland is aware of fierce competition. After losing to Vasser College in a tournament last month, philosophy major and quidditch captain Logan Anbinder has been holding practices three times a week to work on passing drills and catching.
Anbinder's main focus during the game is trying to catch the snitch.
"I look a lot like Harry Potter, so it's only natural I'm a seeker," he said. In the book series, Potter is a seeker.
This year's Big Apple debut is also open to high school teams, including Nanuet Senior High School from New York and Traverse City West, Mich. Teams must pay an entry fee to compete, while fans are encouraged to dress up and take part in live performances. The IQA is also selling t-shirts in hopes of raising $20,000 for the tournament.
"There were owls and wizards last year," IQA commissioner Benepe said.
And even though Middlebury's Kate Olen may not play quidditch past graduation, she says the magic of the game will always bring people together.
"My friends want to pick up a broom at our 20th reunion," Olen said.