When Sean Beloff read the first Harry Potter book at age 8, he found himself wishing he could fly on broomsticks and play Quidditch, the fantasy series’ fictional team sport.
A dozen years later, his wish has become true, in a way. He doesn’t fly, but he’s playing the game nonetheless — as captain of the University of Miami Quidditch team. And this weekend, he’s leading the way as UM competes against 59 other teams at the Quidditch World Cup VI in Kissimmee.
“When I was a kid, I always thought how cool it would be if Quidditch could actually be real,” said Beloff, 20, a political science and international studies student.
The World Cup is the final event of tournament that began in March. Most participating teams are from U.S. colleges, but there also will be three teams from Canada, one from France and one from Mexico. The Hurricanes went undefeated in the South Regional against teams including Florida, Florida State UCF and USF, and haven’t lost since Oct. 27.
The game is a sort of combination of handball and dodgeball, with a little rugby mixed in. Each team has seven players — three Chasers, one Keeper, two Beaters and one Seeker — who play with four balls. The Quaffle, a slightly deflated volleyball, is the score ball; a team picks up 10 points each time it passes it through one of three rings near the end of the field.
Then there are three Bludgers, which the defense use like dodgeballs to stop the other team from attacking. A neutral player, the Human Snitch, runs and hides around the field. The game ends when one team catches the Snitch and gets a 30-point bonus; highest point total wins.
Oh, and players must hold a broom between their legs at all times, reflecting that players in the fictional game flew around on them.
“When you first start, it can be a really awkward thing to do,” Beloff said. “A lot of the guys have the big fear of what’s going to happen if someone kicks the broom up and you get hit, but I’ve been playing for three years and I’ve only actually seen it happen twice.”
Teams are mixed gender; each must have two women on the field at all times.
The game is challenging, players say.
“Everyone that passes by practice makes ... all sorts of Harry Potter comments,” said Maggie Gray, 20, a sophomore majoring in physical therapy who played high school basketball. “But in reality is one of the hardest things … to have to all of a sudden run and throw and catch and maneuver with only one hand.”
Gray will not compete in the World Cup because she broke her shoulder playing against Tennessee Tech in the regional tournament in March.
“A much bigger guy decided to tackle me, which is totally legal, except for the fact that I was half his size and the moment just didn’t work in my favor,” Gray said. “But the team has been so amazing, so supportive, and they say they’re going to win for me, so I hope so.”
The International Quidditch Association ranks teams using a formula that factors in victories and scoring performance. The top team is Texas A&M; UM is ranked 11th. On Saturday, the first day of the World Cup, the teams are divided in groups of five for mini-tournaments. The top three teams in each group move on to Sunday’s sudden-death round robin. The two teams to emerge from that round play for the title. UM’s first game is Saturday morning against Purdue.
Most of the 21 UM players were already athletes, playing basketball, football, volleyball, softball, wrestling and karate. They take the sport seriously.
“I did think it was a little ridiculous at first, I’m not gonna lie,” said Sean Pagoada, 23, a psychology senior who played football and ran track in high school. Pagoada decided to try Quidditch after a rugby-playing friend convinced him it was a real sport.
“I love the books, but I wasn’t going to play it if it was something fake like, ‘Oh we pretend we can fly,’ ” Pagoada said.
Matthew Ziff, 22, an actor whose credits include Treachery, a thriller premiering Thursday at the Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg, said playing Quidditch has helped his career.
“It’s a very good conversation starter in interviews,” said Ziff, an industrial engineering student. “Quidditch has always been a huge part of my life, and that has been a lot of good physical activity and exercise for me. I go to the gym, but a lot of my exercise comes from this.”
For some of the players, it’s just exciting to pioneer a new sport that they hope to see grow.
“This basically is my dream come true,” Gray said. “I get to say that I started it and I’m riding this wave.”