Tuesday, May 31, 2016

MLQ Season Preview

The second season of Major League Quidditch is finally here! All sixteen teams are ready and opening weekend matches begin this weekend in League City, Kansas City and San Francisco.

Blast from the Past and Into the Future
For longtime quidditch players and fans, the Austin Outlaws are more than just a blockbuster summer alliance between the city's premier community teams. With seven players from the University of Texas squad at World Cup VI, the Austin Outlaws are a long-awaited reunion. More than four years ago now, Texas romped to the title as the greatest team in the short history of quidditch. Soon after, the team dissolved with several graduates forming Lone Star Quidditch Club and Augustine Monroe sticking around to lead Texas to two more championships. At the time, quidditch pundits assumed that Monroe would inevitably join Lone Star, ending the all-star community team's World Cup woes and establishing a reign of invincibility. Everyone always believed Lone Star would be the first community team to win a national championship.

Now, the biggest names from Lone Star and Texas Cavalry have united, entering the season as the odds-on favorite to win the South. But the national quidditch landscape has changed markedly. In January, Quidditch Club Boston flew into Austin and left as the consensus number one. Then, they did it again in Columbia, breaking the hearts of Lone Star in the semifinals. Today, many of the same names are back on the roster and revving up for the season with the defending champion Boston Night Riders. Yes, the Austin Outlaws enter Major League Quidditch as an underdog. That much is clear. But how will they handle it?
Photo by Jessica Jiamin Lang
If history lends any clues, the Austin Outlaws are happy to let their northeastern counterparts carry the weight of expectations. For three years in a row, Augustine Monroe and Texas knocked off the consensus number one team at World Cup. Of course, many of those players from Texas A&M and Lone Star who suffered agonizing losses year after year will also be wearing the blue and black. Peddled by quidditch writers like me, the narrative about Lone Star has been a cruel and unfair burden over the years. The eleven Austin Outlaws who have played for Lone Star now have a chance to flip the script.

Barring something out of the ordinary, both the Boston Night Riders and the Austin Outlaws will win their divisions without dropping a game. And when both teams arrive in League City, the Boston Night Riders will still be the favorites. There's not much the Austin Outlaws can do until then. Simply put, they need to ease into the routine of summer practices and get comfortable playing the long game. Then, and only then, can the Austin Outlaws deliver the Benepe Cup for the Southwest.

The Flour City Blossoms in the North
Last spring, when the inaugural eight franchises were announced, every city made sense except Rochester. Major League Quidditch located teams in two national capitals, a city that never sleeps and at least two self-proclaimed Titletowns. With a population of only 200,000 and no major professional sports teams, Rochester seemed out of place.
Photo by Jessica Jiamin Lang
But at the time, something was beginning to happen in Rochester. For years, on the periphery of the Northeast region, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology competed regularly in a back-and-forth, crosstown rivalry. The teams and players from Rochester were mostly overlooked and failed to break through onto the national stage until World Cup 8. In Rock Hill, a supersized University of Rochester, bolstered by Shane Hurlbert, Kyle Savarese and Alyssa Giarrosso from RIT, became the first Northeast team to beat a Southwest powerhouse, Baylor University.

Since then, the same group of players has mostly stuck together, climbing each new mountain and surpassing expectations every time. Finishing with a winning record in the closely contested North, the Rochester Whiteout battled through tight games, working out of the kinks. Shane Hurlbert blossomed into a star, demanding our attention by leading the league with an eye-popping 32 goals. By the fall, Rochester United, clad in stylish new uniforms, traveled far and wide with short rosters, impressing with nonstop goal scoring. Skipping the Bat City Showcase, Rochester United zeroed in on the national championship and ended up in the championship game. Yet again, Rochester United reached higher, forcing overtime and pushing their regional rivals to the limit.
Photo by Jessica Jiamin Lang
So where do the Rochester Whiteout stand now? Heading into their second season of Major League Quidditch, they are the favorites in the North, right? Well, not so fast. Once again, the North looks to be an haven of top-to-bottom competitive quidditch. While the Boston Night Riders, Austin Outlaws and Los Angeles Guardians are all heavy favorites in their divisions, the North lacks a clear frontrunner. If you want snitch range games and close series, the North is the place for you. The Rochester Whiteout are not the only group of players coming off a successful US Quidditch season. Of course, Ball State University, which finished higher than any other college team at the national championship, sends many players to the Indianapolis Intensity and Bowling Green State University, which reached the quarterfinals, feeds into the Cleveland Riff. And for the second year in a row, that's the three-way race at the top of the North: Rochester, Indianapolis and Cleveland.

With the season nearly upon us, each team must be asking; how will the North be won? First off, each team has at least one game-changing male beater. The trio of Kyle Savarese, Tyler Walker and Max MacAdoo leaves no team vulnerable in today's world of hyper-aggressive beating. In the chaser game, I am hard pressed to find a depth advantage. The easy answer perhaps, lies with the seeking game. The Indianapolis Intensity boast the services of two Team USA seekers: Jeff Siwek and Jason Bowling. But I am not sure that seeking will be decisive. Remember, Sam Roitblat, seeker for the Cleveland Riff, performed superbly for Team USA two years ago at the Global Games. More importantly, as I wrote above, I do not see any seeker beating mismatch.
Photo by Jessica Jiamin Lang
From what I can tell, Shane Hurlbert separates the Rochester Whiteout from their division rivals. Hurlbert, a clear first team All-American this past season, has always played with a chip on his shoulder. Hurlbert's rise to the top has been powered the old fashioned way: an indefatigable hunger to be the best. Every time I submitted my ballot for the Eighth Man rankings, I knew that Hurlbert would be checking where his team was ranked. In the online quidditch community, Hurlbert is always one of the first voices to attack a college/community split. I get the sense that winning a community team national championship would not be satisfying for Hurlbert. He wants to leave no doubt. While some community teams might take next year's US Quidditch season less seriously, Hurlbert and Rochester United will assuredly be back in title contention. Hurlbert is a competitor and if I am playing in the North, I want him on my team. No team has found a foolproof answer for Hurlbert yet. The goals, the assists and the snitch catches will keep multiplying and that's why I like the Rochester Whiteout to eke out first place in the North.

Jack McGovern is the Media Outreach Coordinator for Major League Quidditch.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Depth Perception from Home

The weekend of April 16th and 17th was just another busy weekend for me. My AP tests were quickly approaching and I worked hour after hour, reading American history and practicing calculus problems. I was determined and laser-focused, aiming to prove myself to anyone and everyone who stopped and looked. Yet, in the back of my mind, five years of memories floated around. My eye-opening trip to World Cup IV, situated among the skyscrapers and traffic of Manhattan. My thrilling journey as junior reporter for the Florida Quidditch Conference at World Cup V. The optimism of World Cup VI, as the quidditch community celebrated a flawless champion, a likable Cinderella and warm weather. And more recently, teaming up with so many amazing people and flooding the official website with recap articles at World Cups VII and VIII. Five years of airports, hotels, restaurants and parks flashed by as I leafed through textbook pages from my bedroom.

Now eventually, by Sunday night, I tuned into the Livestream and watched Quidditch Club Boston vanquish Lone Star Quidditch Club in the semifinals and squeak past Rochester United for the championship. Without being on the ground in South Carolina, I feel like I have lost my place at the table of quidditch historians, but as the season ended, I had one big takeaway from gamefilm and livestreams.

Three years ago, depth was the key to success. At World Cup VI, Texas' legendary squad was absurdly talented from top to bottom. Since then, Texas A&M, Lone Star Quidditch Club, Texas and Texas State have hurled line after line of athleticism and physicality at each other in an annual war of attrition for the national championship. Non-Southwest teams watched from the sidelines in awe. How could a Northeast or Mid-Atlantic team ever assemble a more complete 21-man roster? The quidditch community largely accepted that the Southwest dominated interregional play because of overwhelmingly greater depth.

A couple weeks ago, QC Boston and Rochester United (and to a lesser degree, Ball State) dismantled the doctrine of depth. Both finalists boasted a skillful supporting cast, but like never before, they both worked with a short bench for the regular season and World Cup 9. Sometimes, two or three superstar players carried them to glory. The Northeast and Great Lakes finally triumphed over the Southwest not with a better second or third line, but with a better first line. While Lone Star recycled through equally talented lines, both Northeast finalists grouped their best players on a single dynamic, cohesive line.

Arguably, the current trend away from depth began last year, when Augustine Monroe and Michael Duquette dispatched the top-to-bottom most skilled team, Lone Star. Either way, depth almost seemed like a competitive disadvantage at World Cup 9. I'm not quite sure yet whether the new star-powered reality is good or bad for the sport. Of course, some professional sports like basketball emphasize superstars over depth and the NBA is doing fine the last time I checked.

But why has depth become less important? Perhaps, the advancement of hyper-aggressive beating has diminished the physicality of the chaser game, enabling star players to stay on the pitch longer. Or maybe the return of pool play allowed star players to rest on Saturday and save energy for bracket play. Or maybe the best players have more and more experience, justifying disproportionate minutes and transforming the lower end of the depth charts into cheerleaders. Maybe community teams, which sometimes struggle to maintain a full roster, are to blame. All of the above?

Anyways, I think that the current climate of quidditch favors short benches and superstars for the foreseeable future. For this and many other reasons, community teams seem the best prepared to fight through close matches and emerge victorious from major tournaments. However, I want to see how quickly the Southwest adapts. I do not honestly know if Southwest college teams have the talent the take down seasoned all-stars from Boston or Rochester or Los Angeles. From where I stand, Southwest community teams have two options. Shift towards Northeast-style hyper-aggressive beating and embrace shorter benches OR double down on depth and physicality.

The fast-approaching Major League Quidditch season will likely give us a better idea about the importance of depth in today's quidditch. As all sixteen teams set their sights on the defending champion Boston Night Riders, I will be watching how teams like the Austin Outlaws and Los Angeles Guardians approach the challenge ahead in League City, Texas.