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Creighton quidditch flying high in first season

They don’t fly, they don’t wear robes, they don’t even have real brooms. They’ve heard all that before.

On the surface, there’s nothing magical about the brand of quidditch — the flying-broom sport detailed in J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series — played by Creighton University’s very own team. But hang around the game’s players long enough and there’s certainly something enchanting at work.

“What we typically do with someone who is new to quidditch is just throw them right into the middle of a game,” said Xavier Imperial, a junior from Mililani, Hawaii, who is president of the Creighton club quidditch squad. “Most people have heard of quidditch, have associated it with Harry Potter, but they’ve seen it in movies with players flying on brooms, so they don’t know exactly what it looks like in real life. So we just let them go in and play. Pretty soon, they’re hooked.”

That’s exactly how it happened for Imperial. Casting about for something to do while on winter break in 2015, Imperial happened upon an online advertisement for quidditch practice at a park near his home.

“I’d read the Harry Potter books, so I was curious,” he said. “I wondered how you did this without the flying and all the magical capabilities. So I went down to check it out and one of the guys saw me watching and he just threw me right into the mix.”

When Imperial returned to Creighton, he looked up Curtis Taylor in the Creighton Intercultural Center. Taylor — who calls quidditch “rugby with a broom” — was active with a quidditch club at his alma mater, Marquette University, and has remained on the quidditch scene after moving to Nebraska, coaching the US National Quidditch Team and currently serving as a regional director for the US Quidditch Association, the sport’s governing body in the United States.

Taylor has been playing, captaining or coaching quidditch teams for six years and earned his 100th victory with the Creighton squad. This past fall in its first competitive quidditch action, Creighton went 6-10 in a grueling schedule to finish seventh out of 16 teams in its region, just missing the cut for national competition, which takes the top five teams from each region. All 10 of Creighton’s losses were to established, highly-regarded teams that did qualify for the national tournament.

Given the rookie team’s initial effort, Taylor said there’s plenty to build on at Creighton.

“It’s a scrappy group,” he said. “I’ve been doing this all over for a few years and they’re by far my favorite group of kids I’ve worked with. They’re very competitive, very athletic. They’ve really come out to understand the value in the game.”

Together, Imperial and Taylor began laying the groundwork for a Creighton club, recruiting students to rekindle their athletic passions in what proves to be a demanding sport. In the fall of 2016, the team was sanctioned by the Student Leadership and Involvement Center, started holding practices and playing in matches and tournaments throughout the Midwest.

For any players who thought it was going to be a quaint, leisurely game for bookish Potter fans, they were quickly disabused.

“It takes a lot of athleticism,” Imperial said. “It takes strategy. Most people, when they first see it, they think it looks confusing, but they begin to see what kind of thought and stamina is invested. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done in sports. And our team is highly competitive. We go out there wanting, expecting to win. We’re always getting better.”

Played on a spacious pitch in all kinds of weather, the game features four balls — three playground dodgeballs and a volleyball, all used to different effect. The volleyball, also known as the quaffle, is meant to be tossed through one of three hoops for 10 points, providing the game’s main scoring mechanism, while the dodgeballs, called bludgers, are used to harass opposing players.

If hit by a bludger, an opposing player must make a loop to his home side of the pitch before being eligible to continue game play. All the while, players must maintain a straddle over “broomsticks” resembling slightly bent hockey sticks.

“It’s demanding,” said Ben Gribben, a junior from Mason City, Iowa, who wrestled, ran cross country, played golf and baseball as a high schooler, and now gets a charge out of flying around the quidditch pitch. “It was hard to get used to at first, as much movement and activity is going on on all sides of the field, but you gradually start to see the strategy. It’s full contact, all-out running. It’s a workout, both physically and mentally.”

To start a game, there are six players to a side: three chasers whose job it is to get the volleyball through one of the three hoops; two beaters, who fend off the opposing players with the bludgers, and a keeper, who provides a defense of the hoops. In US Quidditch rules, teams on the field must include male and female players at all times.

Just as in the books, at the 18-minute mark of a match, the Golden Snitch is introduced, along with a seventh player for each team — the seeker, whose job it is to corral the Snitch and earn his team 50 points.

And, absent magical properties, just what does a Golden Snitch look like in earthbound quidditch?

The Snitch is a person, preferably a deft, quick one, dressed all in yellow, with a yellow tube sock stuffed with a tennis ball, tucked into the waistband of his or her shorts and dangling from the back like a tail.

“The Snitch can do whatever he wants,” Imperial said. “All part of the basic randomness of the game.”

The game continues for as long as the Snitch remains on the loose. So far, the longest game Creighton’s squad has played has lasted an hour, which can be an exhausting enterprise.

Given the competitiveness of the Creighton team, Imperial said, the win-loss record isn’t quite where they’d like it to be, but they’ve seen reasons for optimism in the latest bouts.

As the team matures and plays more games, Imperial and Taylor said they’re hopeful Creighton quidditch starts to develop a strong reputation. The team practices twice a week in grueling workouts and scrimmages.

At present, the club is working with officials from the City of Omaha in an effort to host a 2017 regional tournament this fall. They are also hoping to establish an intramural league which might help field the competitive club team and foster interest in the sport around Creighton and Omaha.

“There are a lot of ways to grow the game,” Taylor said. “It’s an inclusive sport, where men and women come together on an equal playing field, it’s a great opportunity for people to continue to be athletes. A lot of people think it’s just a fake game, but it has a following and anyone who’s ever played it can tell you that it’s a very real experience.”

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