Silicon Valley quidditch team provides community, competition

 

These are the Silicon Valley Skrewts, and their game is quidditch.

“Grab your brooms, nerds!” comes the rallying cry as they assemble in windy Rengstorff Park in Mountain View.

Well-known to Harry Potter fans as the magical game played on flying broomsticks, the land version of quidditch was first played by Muggles in 2005, and has grown steadily since.

Three hoops are mounted at different heights on either side of a makeshift field. Players run between and behind the circles, squelching through inches of mud, clutching lengths of PVC pipe between their legs. What began as a sunny, breezy day has descended into a cold, gray afternoon, and the players are covered in mud — smeared along bare shins of those wearing shorts, coating jersey backs, smudged under glasses on faces.

Quidditch is a physically demanding game, particularly for seekers, who chase the "snitch," a neutral person wearing snitch shorts from which the seekers must grab the attached snitch ball. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

Quidditch is a physically demanding game, particularly for seekers, who chase the “snitch,” a neutral person wearing snitch shorts from which the seekers must grab the attached snitch ball. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

This chilly Saturday is the Skrewts’ last practice before traveling to Peoria, Arizona on Feb. 25-26 in hopes of qualifying for the U.S. Quidditch Cup, the national championship tournament.

More than 4,000 athletes on nearly 200 teams play on official U.S. Quidditch community and college teams, with International Quidditch Association teams in more than 26 countries from Canada to Uganda. College and community teams currently compete against each other, but as the sport grows, there’s a rising movement to split the two. The Bay Area is something of a hub in the west, with eight teams ranging from Berkeley’s Cal Quidditch to San Jose’s South Bay Blazers. Quidditch has grown rapidly — there were just over 100 teams in 2012 — and the Skrewts, most of whom started playing in college, say the key to continued growth is attracting new players at the university level. They’re eager for new recruits, sometimes struggling to form a six-on-six practice game even with the concentration of players in Silicon Valley.

“If there’s no growth at the college level, the sport dies, because that’s where most of the new players come from,” player Elizabeth Barcelos said. But the growth of the sport has brought more rules and regulations, making it more difficult to start teams. Barcelos played quidditch while attending San Jose State University, and thinks it’s “shocking” that SJSU is the only CSU with a quidditch team. “I’m a little worried that growth is stifling at the college level,” Barcelos said, which is why she’s helping other colleges follow SJSU’s path to creating a team.

Although earthbound rather than in air, the positions are the same as in the books — three chasers, two beaters, one keeper and one seeker. Four balls are always in play: one quaffle (a volleyball) and three bludgers (dodgeballs). Chasers throw or kick the quaffle through hoops to score 10 points, while beaters throw bludgers to deter scoring; when hit, players must dismount their brooms and touch a goalpost before returning. The elusive snitch, a small, flying golden ball in the magical version, is a neutral person not on either team wearing yellow “snitch shorts” with a small ball attached, running around the pitch while seekers attempt to snatch the snitch; when one does, that team gets 30 points and the game ends.

Homemade quidditch hoops mark the two sides of a makeshift field for practice in Rengstorff Park in Mountain View, California. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

Homemade quidditch hoops mark the two sides of a makeshift field for practice in Rengstorff Park in Mountain View, California. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

The “brooms” are made of PVC pipe, which the players must keep between their legs throughout play. “It’s something that you grow accustomed to, as weird as it sounds. It’s kind of the hindrance in the game,” said Kyrie Timbrook, who played for the Skrewts until last year. “In soccer, you can’t use your hands; that’s your hindrance. This one is, you happen to have a piece of equipment in a very odd position.”

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Players readily admit that understanding comes when playing — but they’d hate for that to deter anyone. Before practice starts, a man walking his dog asks what they’re doing, and one player invites him to join (he declines, though he comes back to watch later).

Despite this casual inclusiveness, nerves are evident on the pitch as the Skrewts are gearing up to secure their spot at nationals. They’ve played for the Cup five years running, and the pressure is on.

Martin Pyne, a Skrewt-slash-software-developer who volunteers with U.S. Quidditch and helped design the algorithm for ranking teams nationally, has participated in the last four national championships. Nine teams from the West will get “bids” to attend nationals, and Pyne estimates 11 are good enough to make it. “Everyone’s prepping, everyone’s ready to kind of kick ass, take names,” he said.

The Skrewts emerged victorious from Peoria, having nabbed a spot in Quidditch Cup 10. After returning from the tournament, Pyne says the Skrewts were on their game and qualified easier than some years in the past. As for the national Quidditch Cup, the Skrewts have made it to the second day of competition for five years now, and Pyne hopes to make it six.

Practicing in the same neighborhood as Google, it’s unsurprising that many Skrewts work in tech, and they bring these skills to the game. Small in muscle mass, they make up for it intellectually, and have earned a reputation for strategic prowess.

Martin Pyne and Ra Hopkins practice quidditch in Mountain View, California on February 18, 2017. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

Martin Pyne and Ra Hopkins practice quidditch in Mountain View, California on February 18, 2017. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

The Skrewts are a mixed bunch, united by nerdy competitiveness, as Barcelos characterizes them. Though many work in tech, beater Willis Miles is a professional mover and played baseball for 12 years, giving him a build well-suited to the physical demands of the game, a full contact sport that sees its fair share of concussions and knocked-out teeth. He taught Ra Hopkins, whose only experience with sports was in marching band, to throw and hit.

Their drive to win is buoyed by fierce mutual support. “You tried!” subs shout from the sideline when a play doesn’t go as planned. Discussing team roles, such as captain or coach, several players debate who is currently in charge, not contentiously, but genuinely not remembering who holds what job. Within the team, collaboration trumps competition.

The Skrewts, founded in 2010, are the oldest community team in the Bay Area, and one of the longest-standing teams nationally. Quidditch skews young; at nearly 30, Pyne says he’ll probably retire soon. Barcelos, 31, is the second-oldest woman on a quidditch roster nationally. Though college students can play for community teams (a point of contention for those who advocate starting in college to keep the game growing), none of the Skrewts are currently in school, and most are twentysomethings.

It makes sense that twentysomethings, who grew up reading Harry Potter, would be the group drawn to quidditch. But although The Boy Who Lived is what sparked most players’ interest, that relationship fades away when playing. No matter how much players love J.K. Rowling’s world — and they do love it — land quidditch is a sport, not an extended Hogwarts fantasy.

Chewy Shaw throws an elbow in his pursuit of the snitch, while Martin Pyne referees. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

Chewy Shaw throws an elbow in his pursuit of the snitch, while Martin Pyne referees. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

But, like Harry, Ron and Hermione found each other at Hogwarts, the Skrewts have found family in quidditch. They crash on each other’s couches, play board games and watch Disney movies together. Each year, Hopkins hosts Thanksgiving and bakes a Yule log cake for a winter solstice party. “We’re family, we do everything together. I don’t have any family in the state, so these are the people I rely on,” Hopkins said.

Straggling off the field and breaking down the homemade quidditch hoops, the Skrewts are ready to defend their history of success in Arizona. A few weeks later, having qualified, the Cup is on the horizon, and the Skrewts are prepping to head to Kissimmee, Florida on April 8-9 to compete against 59 other quidditch teams from around the nation. Yet, what’s most important to the Skrewts is the continuation of the sport itself. Many team members volunteer for U.S. Quidditch as tournament coordinators, referees or even snitches, and they’re all invested in the game’s growth. “Everyone thinks they know what quidditch is, but quidditch doesn’t even know what it is,” Barcelos said. This uncertainty breeds opportunity, and the Skrewts are more than ready to help quidditch find its way.