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They're Wizards at the Sport of Quidditch

River Hawks Knowlton, Dinning help Boston team win major league championship

Jesse Knowlton and Kelly Dinning in their Boston Night Riders jerseys Photo by Ed Brennen
Senior Jesse Knowlton, left, and Kelly Dinning '16 won the Major League Quidditch national championship as members of the Boston Night Riders.

By Ed Brennen

Yes, the matches are still played by chasers, beaters, keepers and seekers. And yes, they still use quaffles, bludgers and snitches.

But beyond that, Harry Potter himself probably wouldn’t have recognized the brand of quidditch on display at this summer’s Major League Quidditch championships held in the Houston suburb of League City, Texas, where a pair of River Hawks — Jesse Knowlton and Kelly Dinning — won a national title with the Boston Night Riders.

“I played football and soccer growing up and did track in high school, but this is the most fun I’ve ever had playing sports,” says Knowlton, a senior mechanical engineering major from Amesbury who admits that it’s easy to have fun when your team finishes the season a perfect 28-0. “Winning is not bad at all.”

Combining elements of rugby, dodgeball and tag, the co-ed sport features two teams of seven trying to score goals in three hoops at the opposite end of the field — all while keeping a broom between their legs at all times. Unlike in J.K. Rowling’s fictional universe, today’s competitive quidditch players no longer wear capes, and the flying brooms have been replaced by brand-name, 40-inch PVC pipes that come in a variety of colors and contours.

Jesse Knowlton talks to newcomers to the club quidditch team Photo by Ed Brennen
Senior Jesse Knowlton, center, helps new members of the club quidditch team learn the sport during a recent practice outside the Campus Rec Center.

“People ask me, ‘Do you fly?’ and I say, ‘Depends on how hard you get hit,’ ” says Dinning, a North Andover native who graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She is now a peptide chemist at 21st Century Biochemicals in Marlborough. “It’s not just a bunch of Harry Potter fans running around on brooms. It’s a sport that’s really becoming geared toward athletes.”

Knowlton and Dinning have been teammates on the quidditch pitch since high school, when they were introduced to the sport while attending a church summer camp together in Western Mass. Like most kids, they both grew up fans of the Harry Potter books and movies and figured quidditch would provide some fun exercise.

“But the first time I tried it, I loved it,” Knowlton says. “There’s so much chaos going on and it’s so physical.”

“I love that it’s a co-ed sport,” Dinning adds. “I’ve always been an athletic person, and I get along well with guys playing sports. And I love that it incorporates so much from other sports like rugby and dodgeball.”

So the two friends started a community team with others from the camp, and when their paths crossed once again at UMass Lowell, Knowlton and Dinning helped establish a club quidditch team in the fall of 2014. 

Club quidditch team players practice outside the Rec Center Photo by Ed Brennen
The university's club quidditch team has become an official member of U.S. Quidditch for the first time this season.

“The team draws such a wide variety of people,” Dinning says. “You have mechanical engineers, chemists, acting majors, photography majors — so many different people coming together to play one sport.”

Now in its third season, the university’s growing club team competes against eight other schools (including UMass Amherst) in the Southern New England Quidditch Conference. The River Hawks are also an official U.S. Quidditch team for the first time this year, making them eligible for the national championships in April.

Knowlton already owns a U.S. Quidditch national championship, which he won last spring while playing beater for Q.C. Boston, another select team that draws on top quidditch talent from the Greater Boston area.

“There’s so many players in this area that are so skilled and have been playing for so long,” says Knowlton, who adds that players range in age from 19 to 35. 

Dinning was invited to try out for the Night Riders last year after its coach (and one of its top players), Harry Greenhouse, spotted her at a River Hawks practice.

“I had never experienced that level of play, and I was so excited when I found out I made the roster,” says Dinning, who ended up traveling across the Northeast for games in Ottawa, New York and Washington D.C. The Night Riders practice three days a week at Harvard Stadium and play their home games in Brookline.

The club quidditch team practices on East Campus Photo by Ed Brennen
The sport of quidditch is no longer just a game for die-hard Harry Potter fans, says River Hawks Jesse Knowlton and Kelly Dinning.

“I had the opportunity to grow and develop with some of the best players in the world,” says Dinning, who hopes to continue her quidditch career for years to come. “It’s definitely something people of all ages can play.”

Dinning and Knowlton both hope to see quidditch grow and evolve into a more mainstream sport, something you might see one day on ESPN.

“It’s interesting to see the development of the quidditch community and the sport itself,” says Knowlton, who has friends in the game who are literally writing the rules of the sport each year as part of the U.S. Quidditch organization. “I see myself sticking with it, absolutely.”

As a senior leader on the club team, Knowlton enjoys introducing the game to newcomers. At a recent early evening practice on the turf field in front of the Campus Rec Center, he patiently explained some of the game’s strategic concepts to those trying the sport for the first time. More than a few students walking by along Pawtucket Street did a double-take before remembering where they’d seen the sport before.