Friday, November 13, 2015

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The Very Beginning
The weather could not have been better. The sun basked the park with warmth and leaves fluttered onto the turf. A refreshing breeze sailed off the Hudson River. The crisp November air carried the sounds of street traffic and cheerful voices. As the long shadows of office buildings receded across the park, college students mounted brooms, donned colored headbands and kicked off a momentous weekend of quidditch. From Saturday morning to Sunday night, thousands of New Yorkers wandered into DeWitt Clinton Park, pausing for a minute to piece together the bizarre sights and sounds. Media outlets descended on the neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen to relay an entertaining story to the world. The hustle-and-bustle of New York City had welcomed a child of rural Vermont.
Photo by Steve McGovern
Five years ago today, I watched quidditch for the first time. It was the fall of 2010 and I was two months into sixth grade. My transition to middle school had been rough. At school, I was unhappy, lonely and discouraged. Looking for refuge, I picked up the Harry Potter series and reveled in the world of Harry, Ron and Hermione. And quidditch. I had always loved sports and I eagerly anticipated the quidditch matches between Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. One day, I fired up my old Dell desktop computer and searched YouTube for quidditch clips from the Harry Potter movies. I wanted to see how directors, actors and computer cinematographers interpreted quidditch. Instead, I found how Middlebury College students made quidditch come to life. I stumbled across an advertisement for the International Quidditch Association's World Cup IV in New York City and began to hunt for more information.

It was surprisingly easy to convince my parents to take me to World Cup IV. I think my parents knew how unhappy I was at school and hoped that an adventure in the Big Apple would brighten my weekend. I remember counting down the days, trying to envision the spectacle. When my alarm clock beeped on the morning of Saturday, November 13th, I was already awake and ready to go. In the pitch black, my dad and I drove into Philadelphia and boarded a MegaBus at 30th Street Station. I leafed through the World Cup IV information packet on the New Jersey Turnpike, reviewing the rules, scanning the list of teams and tracing the route to the fields. Soon enough, the Manhattan skyline appeared and MegaBus dumped us in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. Then, my dad and I speed-walked 25 blocks through the Garment District and Hell's Kitchen, eager to arrive at our destination.
Photo by Steve McGovern
As we crossed the black gates into DeWitt Clinton Park, hundreds of quidditch players had formed a large oval around one pitch. The three remaining pitches stood eerily silent with chairs, hoops and balls waiting for the day to begin. I cautiously approached the oval and stood on a chair to peer over Penn State's quidditch team. The well-dressed master of ceremonies, IQA commissioner Alex Benepe, was wrapping up his remarks and prompting the congregation to yell "quidditch" at the top of our lungs. Why not? I joined the chorus and shouted "quidditch." I've never looked back.

Middlebury's Finest Hour
Games began shortly after the teams dispersed and I settled into a pitch-side fold-up chair. Once I nailed down the rules, I began to search for Middlebury's top competitors. From reading about quidditch online, I knew Middlebury was the three-time defending champions and I was immediately drawn to the intrigue of Middlebury's dynasty. Early on, I watched an athletic Michigan State squad dismantle its opponents. Physical players from LSU and Texas A&M foreshadowed the Southwest's bright future. Small liberal colleges like Vassar, Emerson and Chestnut Hill notched wins against larger universities. Because I was unfamiliar with quidditch strategy, I was more enamored with athleticism and chaser teamwork than anything else. The QuidKid was only a twinkle in my eye at World Cup IV, but the foundation for JackThePhan was there. I loved picking apart quidditch and finding the impact players.
Photo by Steve McGovern
Without a doubt, the highlight of the day was Middlebury's pool play schedule. I don't know how the pools were determined, but Middlebury faced both Pittsburgh and Michigan State in the preliminary round. The atmosphere around each and every Middlebury game was electric. Along with many others, I had circled Middlebury's games on my schedule and my dad and I arrived at the pitch early to claim seats. By brooms up, an enormous crowd encircled the pitch and buzzed with anticipation, recognizing that Middlebury's undefeated record was the on the line. Both contests against Pittsburgh and Michigan State were frantic, back-and-forth affairs. Packed four or five rows deep, spectators roared as Middlebury raced up and down the pitch. Out of the chaos, Middlebury produced immaculate passing, daring drives and clutch snitch catches. Pittsburgh and Michigan State proved worthy challengers, but Middlebury landed the knockout punch.

Looking back, I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed Middlebury at the height of its dominance. Of course, Middlebury went on to claim the championship on Sunday, dispatching Villanova, Vassar and Tufts in bracket play. Say whatever you want about the brackets and the snitches at World Cup V, but never question whether Middlebury earned the championship at World Cup IV. Middlebury was the most athletic, most talented, most strategic, most organized team. Without any cupcake games, Middlebury faced the gauntlet and passed with flying colors.
Photo by Steve McGovern
Beyond the competition, World Cup IV truly offered the perfect spectator experience for me and many others. It was a different era and snitch antics and hilarious announcers meshed well with the whimsical mood. As an enthusiastic 11-year-old spectator, I was interviewed by the commentators on one field between games. And I distinctly remember one snitch scaling 20 feet into the stratosphere and perching atop a baseball backstop. It was unbelievable. It perfectly captured the boldness of quidditch at the time. Yet, I also recall seekers cornering over-ambitious snitches on city sidewalks and securing the snitch catch within minutes of brooms up. Throughout the weekend, it was clear that quidditch was evolving quickly and pivoting towards serious competition. Soon, off-pitch snitch catches and improv comedians would grow increasingly stale. Quidditch was reaching a crossroads, announcing itself to the wider world and enjoying the last hurrah of its Vermont roots.

When my dad and I left DeWitt Clinton Park around six o'clock, I knew that I wanted to stay connected to quidditch. Walking back to the MegaBus terminal, I wondered whether a nationwide college sport had a place for me. I dozed off to sleep somewhere between New York and Philadelphia, dreaming up endless possibilities for my quidditch future.

Back to the City
I can't honestly predict where I would be today without quidditch. I've attended five World Cups, worked hours and hours for US Quidditch, attracted almost 100,000 hits for my blog and organized two tournaments in my hometown. When everything else fails, quidditch has given me happiness and purpose. World Cup IV was the beginning of my personal quidditch journey, but its significance is even more far-reaching. 

Located in the heart of New York City, World Cup IV jumpstarted an era of rapid growth for quidditch. Along with thousands of spectators, media outlets flocked to DeWitt Clinton Park. NPR, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, FoxNews, Wired, Entertainment WeeklyTime and more all covered World Cup IV, capitalizing on the convenient location of the tournament. Perhaps more importantly, many of today's leaders within the quidditch community were deeply inspired at World Cup IV. The thrill of media, spectators and the city energized new captains and new recruits alike. Manhattan breathed life into quidditch, enabling unprecedented growth within the world of sport.

It's no secret that three consecutive South Carolina World Cups has limited publicity for quidditch in recent years. Media outlets only travel to South Carolina regularly for presidential primaries or college football. For quidditch's premier event, the spectator attendance in North Myrtle Beach and Rock Hill has been disappointing. Yet, South Carolina has a purpose for US Quidditch. Smaller cities offer financial incentives, including cheaper hotel rooms and cheaper food. Here's what I propose.

Every five years, World Cup should return to a major metropolitan area. The tournament should be held among skyscrapers, street vendors, subways and taxis in a true urban environment. Suburbs like Rock Hill and small cities like Columbia aren't good enough. The quidditch community would have to shoulder the burden of higher costs, but it would be an incredibly smart investment for the future. Every five years, a new major city would give quidditch a pick-me-up, helping to preserve and enhance quidditch's record-breaking growth. As US Quidditch narrows its choices for next year's national championship, I would encourage upper management to pause and remember the magic of World Cup IV. Five years ago today, an immature, young sport won my heart and captured my mind. And I was not alone. Now imagine combining an exciting urban atmosphere with the hard-hitting, fast-paced modern game of quidditch. Somewhere, the future bloggers, organizers and leaders of the quidditch community are out there, waiting patiently for quidditch to roll into town.

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