by Fraser Posford, Ashara Peiris, and Claudio Svaluto
After an action-packed (and surprisingly dry) Southern Cup two weeks ago in Southampton, we turn our attention to Northern Cup this weekend, November 12-13. Returning to Belmont School in Durham, this year’s tournament has all the ingredients in place for a thrilling showcase of UK quidditch with the prospect of some mouth-watering encounters on both days of the tournament. Here, we break down for you the key storylines and who to watch out for.
Seven players to watch
Tommy Ruler – Nottingham Nightmares – Keeper
In 2015-16, the Nightmares enjoyed their most successful season, reaching another European Quidditch Cup (EQC) semifinal, finishing fourth at British Quidditch Cup (BQC), and winning Northern Cup and East Midlands Cup. Unsurprisingly, Nottingham’s Team UK contingent took much of the plaudits for this success; however, it was Tommy Ruler who was the team’s real breakthrough player of the season. Since the end of that successful season, all of the Nightmares’ Team UK players have moved on to pastures new, plunging Ruler into the spotlight as team coach. Whether he plays at keeper or chaser, Ruler will be a key figure in Nottingham’s regional title defence and if he replicates some of last season’s performances, a call up to the Team UK training squad is surely in order.
George Matthews – Leeds Griffins – Beater
Another player with Team UK training/development squad potential is Leeds’ George Matthews. The Griffin is an aggressive beater very much in the mould of household names Jan Mikolajczak and Jacopo Sartori, whose athletic play was instrumental in the Yorkshire side’s mid-season revival in 2015/16, including their defeat of the Bristol Brizzlebears at BQC 2016. Leeds certainly have their tails up following their top-eight finish in Rugeley last March and will have an EQC spot within their sights. A strong tournament from Matthews may well help them get there.
Jack Murray – Holyrood Hippogriffs Firsts – Beater
As many will know, training new beaters from scratch can be a difficult challenge; however Jack Murray has already developed remarkably well in the very short time that he has been with the Hippogriffs. At Highlander Cup IV Murray proved that he could comfortably compete with any beater there, showing great game awareness, prioritisation, and good throwing ability. If he has continued developing at this pace since then, he will undoubtedly perform well at Northern, perhaps allowing the Hippogriffs to survive the dreaded group of death.
Hailey Bloom – Durhamstrang – Chaser
Having spent most of last season learning her trade on the Durham Direwolves, American Hailey Bloom gained promotion to Durhamstrang for EQC and has not looked back since. As exemplified by her phenomenal performance at Summer Cup II, Bloom exhibits excellent composure in her quaffle handling and execution around the hoops and is a welcome addition to Durhamstrang’s impressively deep female chaser lineup, which includes new team coach and UK international Bex Lowe. With margins expected to be tight at the top, this strength in the quaffle game could provide the tournament hosts with an extra edge.
Stephen Withers – Loughborough Longshots – Chaser
A player who stayed largely under the radar during his first season with the Longshots, Stephen Withers is not your standard Loughborough player. The Midlands side have historically been known for their physical play; however, what Withers offers the team is excellent agility and blistering pace. Both on- and off-quaffle, he is capable of making dangerous runs that often result in some aesthetically pleasing goals for his team. Withers may come across as a quiet and unassuming character but he certainly gives variety to Loughborough’s quaffle offence.
Hannah Ridley – Keele Squirrels – Chaser
Having burst onto the UK scene in 2015-16, Hannah Ridley was one of only two rookie players to be called up to the Team UK training squad. She now comes into this new season as one of Keele’s top-quality players, determined to make the step up to being a full national team member having missed out on selection for the IQA World Cup 2016 roster. With a strong background in athletics, Ridley is an athlete accustomed to the pressures of elite competition. If she can combine this with her improved game knowledge, she will certainly be hoping to help Keele go far in the tournament whilst putting her name in the hat for national selection.
Tom Stevens – HogYork Horntails – Seeker
Tom Stevens finished the 2015-16 season in strong fashion with fine performances in the yellow headband complementing his stellar chasing prowess. The former captain made the two vital snitch catches that won the Horntails the lower bracket final versus Tornadoes QC (previously known as Taxes Quidditch) and the Yorkshire team will need him to be on top of his game for their matches in the hotly contested Group D if they wish to proceed to the championship bracket. A Team UK squad place eluded the ex-rugby player last season however a strong tournament performance from him at regionals will surely prove hard to ignore for the UK scouts.
The Jurassic Period
The latest team on the scene with perhaps one of the oldest rosters, Velociraptors QC are Northern Cup’s walking, talking, quidditch-playing oxymoron and overwhelming favourites to take the title. Captained by former Bangor and Oxford chaser Tom Heynes, the Raptors are a newly-formed, northern-based community team specifically for graduates that boasts a wealth of talent featuring multiple past and present Team UK members. Similar to Team USA going into July’s World Cup, any result other than a Raptors win will be seen as a big shock in the UK quidditch community, such is the quality of their roster, combined with their pre-existing team chemistry. However, if there’s one thing we learnt from the summer’s showcase event in Frankfurt, tournaments are won on the pitch and not on reputation alone. It remains to be seen how dominant Heynes & Co. will be at Northern Cup and who will be their closest challengers in the region. It will also be interesting to see how they compare with Southern powerhouses Warwick Quidditch Club and Werewolves of London both stylistically and performance-wise at this point in the season, especially considering their snitch range loss to the Londoners at last month’s SQC: Battle Royale.
Race for Europe
Whilst it seems that the Northern crown is the Velociraptors’ to lose, the real excitement and anticipation surrounding this weekend’s tournament is centred around which teams will finish second and third, therefore becoming the final three UK teams to qualify for EQC 2017. The emergence of Velociraptors along with various transfers, graduations, and the annual fresher intake for university-based teams has substantially warped the pre-existing hierarchy of previous seasons. In its place, we have a wild west of unpredictability where no team is safe – a semblance of parity at last? Up to nine teams (if not more) hold reasonable aspirations of joining Europe’s elite in Belgium next March, surely resulting in plenty of tense, snitch-range matches decided on the smallest of margins. Will any of the incumbents (Nottingham, Durham, Loughborough, and Keele) book a record-equalling third year of European qualification or will a new challenger such as Leeds, Tornadoes QC, Bangor, York, or Edinburgh upset tradition? If you didn’t follow Northern quidditch previously, now is a great time to start. What a time to be alive!
New Kids on the Block and the Elusive BQC Spot
Northern Cup will see the Liverpuddly Cannons, Preston Poltergeists, and Sheffield SQuidS making their QuidditchUK debut. Whilst these teams have already played some competitive games in the past – including appearances at Chips and Gravy Cup and the L Tournament – this will be the first time on the regional stage for these teams. The question on everyone’s lips is whether any of these teams will be able to win enough games to progress to BQC. Four of the attending teams at Northern Cup will miss out on a place at BQC, three more than the South region. The excitement and spectacle generated by the first BQC qualifier at Southern Cup between the Oxford Quidlings and the Flying Chaucers was immense as the new stakes gave added drama to the proceedings. That Quidlings vs. Chaucers encounter will be long remembered as one of the best games of the tournament and neutral spectators will be hoping that the next round of qualifying games will be just as exhilarating to follow.
D is for Death
What do former BQC medalists, the North’s newest super team, the plucky BQC 2016 lower-bracket winners and Scotland’s finest all have in common? They can all be found in Group D. Yes, in a cruel twist of fate, Keele Squirrels, Velociraptors QC, HogYork Horntails, and Holyrood Hippogriffs will all face each other on Day One in what is probably the hardest group of death ever seen in UK Quidditch. Only two will qualify for upper bracket play so expect some scintillating matches as the four sides battle it out to keep the European dream alive, providing a rare bit of drama that you don’t find often on Day One of most tournaments.
Northern Growing Pains
This is the first season in UK quidditch history in which teams are required to qualify for the British Quidditch Cup via attendance and performance at their respective regional tournament. Capping BQC at 32 teams was a bold yet sensible move by QuidditchUK; however, the subject of how these 32 spots are allocated has been cause for debate amongst community members. A 16-16 split between North & South was chosen, a decision that means a fifth of the teams attending Northern Cup will not qualify for the national tournament, a figure four times greater than in the South (one team). It appears the impressive expansion of Northern Cup from 14 teams in 2015 to 20 in 2016 has come at a price to those at the lower end of the spectrum. With suggestions of a more weighted split to reflect regional growth or even the exclusion of second teams from BQC, it is a topic that has provoked a fair amount of attention on the UK scene. Unfortunately for those affected, nothing will be changed this season with regards to this policy. But, the whole situation is a sign of rapid expansion for the sport in the UK and a new competitive dawn which can certainly be viewed as a positive development.
Three EQC Qualifying Teams
This year’s EQC qualifying spots are incredibly hard to predict. Whilst a tournament win for Velociraptors QC seems all but inevitable at this stage due to the heavy presence of Team UK and other talent, our staff were somewhat divided when it came to deciding on the two remaining qualifying teams. Instead, here’s a list of the teams we feel are in the running for the podium with a summary of pros and cons for each.
Durhamstrang have retained the majority of their bronze medal BQC 2016 squad, including Ben Guthrie and star seeker Johnnie Rees. The team’s main strength is their collective game intelligence, making them very capable of grinding out a result even when times get tough. However, a depleted roster was only able to manage a disappointing fourth place at Highlander Cup IV, in which they suffered very close losses against Bangor Broken Broomsticks and Holyrood Hippogriffs; they scraped a SWIM win against Southern Cup’s fourth place team, the London Unspeakables. With a more complete squad at Northern Cup, Durhamstrang should be capable of earning an EQC spot; however, as their roster remains small in number, fatigue management and injury prevention will be key to their chances of success.
Bangor Broken Broomsticks
Bettering their second place finish at the previous Highlander Cup to become this year’s victor, Bangor are coming into Northern Cup with a lot of momentum. Boasting a very balanced squad with mature beaters including Sam Bowler and Jack Newton, a very able seeker in the form of Callum Lake, and great chasing options in Annabel Wright and Lauren Sterry. With a rematch against Durham in the group stages – against whom Bangor won both of the previous games at Highlander Cup – they will have a lot of confidence coming in.
Furthermore, they were able to retain much of their squad from the previous year (Jay Holmes being the notable exception) and with some new faces such as former Leicester keeper Alessandro Zazza, Bangor could be set to make a deep bracket run. However, to do so they will need to continue to use their roster to its fullest ability rather than rely on old-fashioned techniques.
Loughborough have managed to maintain high retention this year with an experienced batch of players. Their squad has a lot of tactical depth; however, they still tend to rely on a few key players including Franky Kempster, Holly Kerslake, and Bill Orridge – who often has to play out of position to support their chasers. However, a weak group means that they should be able to achieve a good seeding after Day One, giving them a good chance of success.
As reigning champions, Nottingham come into this year’s Northern Cup with plenty of big game experience as a club that will be useful come bracket play on Day Two. However, in a similar vein to former Southern champions Radcliffe Chimeras, the Nightmares will be fighting an uphill battle to regain their regional title due to the loss of their Team UK core. James Thanangadan, Lucy Quidditch, Lucy Edlund (all now on Velociraptors QC) and Mikey Ansell (TUK training squad member) are the players of last season whose quality won’t just be missed on the pitch but also in the team’s coaching and leadership. Nevertheless, Nottingham still have the quality of players like Captain Rachel Lily, beater/seeker Brandon Fitz-Gerald, and powerhouse keeper Andrew Price which means they should still be a force to be reckoned with.
Newly re-branded Tornadoes have recruited the services of Team UK seeker David Goswell and chaser Jonathon “Farmer” Cookes. This adds obvious star quality to an already experienced roster. Lee Baughan returning to beating should help the team gain an edge in the beater game, especially because most of the other Tornadoes’ beater options are somewhat conservative. Whilst Farmer will also be a dedicated beater this year, he has not had as much experience as his teammates with the black headband, and they might struggle to truly dominate matches.
At BQC last season, the team’s lack of training time was clearly exposed, and it remains to be seen if this issue has been resolved. Considering the roster they are taking to Northern Cup is relatively unchanged from last season, the Tornadoes should have improved team chemistry in their favour. Their matchup with Nottingham on Day One should give us a good idea of their podium potential, and will be a match well worth following.
The Keele Squirrels are always a team that seems to be written off; however, they somehow have an uncanny ability to do just enough to win matches and progress. This was exemplified by their narrow win at the East Midlands Cup, where they managed to edge out Loughborough in the finals. This year Keele have faced somewhat larger turnover than usual, losing a number of players and leaving them with a particularly weak beating lineup. However, they do boast one of the strongest keeper lineups in the UK with Captain Scott Hopkins, Chris Scholes-Lawrence, and Tom Tugulu donning the green headbands. Whilst it may not be enough to get them the EQC spot or potentially even out of the group stages, Keele will be looking to prove everyone wrong again once again.
Holyrood Hippogriffs Firsts
Third place at Highlander Cup IV should give the Hippogriffs a great confidence boost going into Northern Cup, especially their victories over Durhamstrang. However, despite recruiting some promising fresher talent, the Edinburgh side still seem to be too over-reliant on captain and star player Ollie Riley to provide the team with attacking impetus. The main issue facing the Hippogriffs is their draw into the group of death. If they have a slow start, a loss to any team but Raptors will likely mean that their upper bracket hopes go down the drain.
The HogYork Horntails are very much the current trendy team on the UK circuit following their BQC 2016 lower bracket win and a strong showing at Whiteknights Goes Forth. Keeper Caleb Pakeman and chaser/seeker Tom Stevens are two top-quality players who lit up last season with some energetic and truly entertaining displays. Francesca Vigilante and Lizzie Keegan have shown a great deal of potential at beater and chaser, respectively. Recruitment of former Derby Union Quidditch Club Captain Phil Brown is also a huge boost in their beater department, perhaps their weakest area. With their newfound popularity and the heightened expectations of them by the community, it will be interesting to see how York respond. All this current positivity surrounding the team masks the fact that the Horntails’ undoing last season was a large disparity in quality across their roster and it remains to be seen whether this has been improved on since. Let’s not forget, they also have to navigate their way out of Group D to even stand a chance of getting to an EQC spot on Day Two. However, if they make it out of the Group of Death alive, they will most certainly have proved their credentials.
With a strong driver in Josh Armitage, an aggressive beater in George Matthews, and a SWIM specialist seeker in Matty Percival, Leeds have a solid core around which to build a winning team. Coupled with a strong fresher recruitment and an underdog spirit epitomised by Captain Sash Steele, they could well squeeze their way into the latter stages of the tournament. Should Leeds get as far as the semifinals, though, the team lacks experience of making deep bracket play runs at major tournaments and tournament stamina which could well be their undoing.
One Lasting Impact
The appearance of the trio of new North West teams at Northern Cup is an exciting development not just for the North West but the Northern region as a whole. Besides Chester Centurions and Keele (depending on your interpretation of British geography), this area of the UK has been a quidditch wilderness for a long time, despite large student populations in its cities and towns. Now, within the space of a year and a half or so, teams in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Preston have all popped up more or less at the same time, fielding similarly small rosters and therefore not creating a great deal of expectation going into the tournament. In a hypothetical scenario related to the new BQC qualifying conditions, three of these four will not qualify for BQC (while perhaps Manchester or Preston qualify via upsetting what is a vulnerable Derby side in Group B to reach the upper bracket), leaving them for the consolation tournament QuidditchUK have promised. Due to their almost joint arrival on the UK scene, similar skill level, close proximity, and a willingness to organise tournaments (as demonstrated by Manchester’s Cottonopolis Cup and Preston’s Chips and Gravy Cup), these teams form a North West league akin to the new South West league, potentially inviting teams such as Chester, Leeds, and Keele. This regular competition then galvanizes the teams in the area and encourages development and potentially even growth of new teams in the area whilst the non-BQC attending trio return to Northern Cup in 2017 with a vengeance. Of course, this is all hypothetical and based on few small hints and clues but in a roundabout way, what I am trying to say is the introduction of these teams into the fray could prove to be big for the future of Northern quidditch. For the first time, the Northern Cup is a truly northern tournament with competing teams from all over the north of England, Wales, and Scotland (having said that, Belfast, Glasgow, we’re still waiting for you!), something that may well fuel the fire for ideas of future regional leagues such as the hypothetical scenario above, or maybe even the Midlands breaking away and forming their own region. The wheels of thought are in motion and the potential for development in Northern quidditch is certainly an avenue to be pursued in the coming months and years.
Jack Lennard contributed reporting.