The Tufflepuffs, Tufts' Quidditch team, became the darlings of the muggle Quidditch world last fall with an epic run through the World Cup to force a matchup with Middlebury, the sport's founders, in the final.
Quidditch — a fast−growing sport adapted from the game from J.K Rowling's "Harry Potter" series — has grown exponentially in popularity since last year. The World Cup field this year has doubled to nearly 100, the average player of Quidditch has become far more athletic, and Tufts has slid back into the pack after a 1−3 showing in pool play, a performance not good enough to earn the Tufflepuffs a spot in the single−elimination bracket.
Tufts was eliminated from the Cup on Sunday morning, when the Tufflepuffs lost by an unofficial score of 150−50 to the University of Maryland in the final match of pool play.
The game started in misfortune, as one of Tufts' top players, sophomore chaser Rajah Reid, was carted off the field after injuring his leg in the opening moments of the match.
A Quidditch game only ends when the human Snitch — a man dressed in yellow Spandex with a tennis ball and sock tucked into his pants — is caught, so though the Tufflepuffs were down early, they prolonged the Maryland game as much as possible, tasking their beaters and seeker with defending the snitch with the hope of a comeback. But ultimately, with Maryland up big, the Tufflepuffs decided to "suicide Snitch" with sophomore seeker Roy Loewenstein, who caught the Snitch to end the game and with it Tufts' tournament hopes.
"There's a point in every game when you know that you're not going to be able to catch up before they catch the snitch," junior beater co−captain Carly Boxer said. "Their seeker was very fast, and made a few near grabs, and at that point we knew that he had to catch it to at least end the match on our terms."
The Maryland loss pushed Tufts out of the top three in their pool and thus out of the playoffs — a position the Tufflepuffs may not have been in had they won their first match of the tournament Saturday morning against the Silicon Valley Screwts. The Screwts traveled to New York from California, where most of the players work for Disney.
After a slow start from both teams, Reid scored twice to put Tufts up 30−20. The Tufflepuffs had momentum on their side, but — as is so often the case with such a fickle game as Quidditch — the tide turned when Silicon Valley seeker Sam Fischgrund emerged from off the field with the sock−and−ball Snitch, ending the game with the Screwts in front 50−30 and giving the Disney folks a fairy−tale ending.
"The other seeker [Tufts junior David Meyers] and I went off the field, and the Snitch was coming back to the field from our end, and so as he was coming back looking for us on the field, I came out from behind him and just grabbed it," Fischgrund said. "It's always nice to be able to surprise the Snitch, but usually they don't give you the opportunity … He happened to choose a path where I could see him and he couldn't see us."
Fischgrund's Snitch catch was a frustrating way for Tufts, a far more experienced squad than Silicon Valley, to lose. Usually Snitches make their way back to the field before being caught, but according to the Tufflepuffs, this Snitch was carelessly chatting with friends, leaving himself vulnerable for a Screwt seeker attack from behind.
"I heard ‘Snitch grab' and I was like please, please let it be David," Reid said after the match. "And I saw their seeker and I said, ‘No way.' Matches aren't supposed to end until the Snitch goes back on the field. And so what happened is the Snitch stopped and talked to some people, and their seeker just came up behind him and caught the Snitch. It's just a really bad way to lose. It really stings, because I feel like we were definitely better than that team."
Tufts won its second match on Saturday against Bowling Green. The Tufflepuffs came out with a vengeance, outsmarting a bigger Bowling Green team by controlling the Bludgers — essentially dodgeballs, which are more effective than tackling — from start to finish.
Tufts was up 80−30 when Bowling Green caught the Snitch — Rainey Johnson, by far the most notorious of all Snitches. The 80−60 final was a huge confidence−booster for a Tufflepuffs team that had lost its past five matches going in.
"I was really excited to get this win," said sophomore keeper Nick Hill, who went coast−to−coast for goals a handful of times. "We've been losing quite a few games this season, and it's a real rush to finally win one, and win one so well. They were a physical team, but our beaters did a fantastic job. They kept beating them and beating them, and that made the [physicality] of them a non−issue."
The Tufflepuffs then retreated to their tents, ate a snack and took naps before their final game of Day 1, a night match under the lights against International Quidditch Association (IQA) No. 8−ranked Pittsburgh. From the first whistle, Pittsburgh came out with an attitude — after all, a Cinderella Tufts team defeated them in the 2010 World Cup semifinals.
The Tufflepuffs knew going into the Pittsburgh game that the only chance they had against an athletic Pitt squad was to control the Bludgers and avoid being tackled. But neither of these things happened, as Pitt thoroughly dominated Tufts to the point where Tufflepuffs sophomore Duncan Leaf's Snitch catch to end the game at 130−30 was inconsequential, save for allowing Tufts to avoid a shutout.
"Oh, we were so motivated. Last year was pretty painful," said Pittsburgh senior keeper Jeff Moulton, a massive man who spent the game flicking Tufts chasers off of him like flies and deflecting cries from the announcers to take off his shirt and reveal the other man standing on his shoulders, because his height was suspicious. "A lot of us are seniors this year, so this is our last shot."
The losses to Maryland and Pittsburgh are part of an alarming trend for the Tufflepuffs — facing teams with bigger athletes and losing. The week before the Cup, Tufts played three games against IQA No. 5 Emerson — another physically imposing squad — and lost all three.
According to junior Howie Levine, one of the team's captains, international muggle Quidditch is becoming more competitive, more physical but sometimes less fun.
"The game's always evolving, and size is becoming more of a factor," Levine said. "It's almost losing a little bit of what made it so fun in the first place."
The change in the international Quidditch landscape was evident from early Saturday, when in the span of a few hours both of last year's World Cup finalists, Tufts and IQA No. 1 Middlebury — who entered the tournament undefeated all−time — lost.
Middlebury was able to rally from their first-ever loss, however,-- to Michigan in Saturday's pool play --to win the Cup once again, besting Florida Quidditch on a Snitch catch in Sunday night's final.
Though some of the other liberal−arts schools that pioneered the game may be losing their charm on Quidditch's biggest stage, one thing remains the same: Middlebury manages to keep casting its spells over the Quidditch world.
.Editor's Note: A portion of this story was adapted from Ben Kochman's weekend reports live from the Quidditch World Cup on Jumbo Slice, The Tufts Daily blog.