COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Ohio State students tossed Frisbees or lounged on the grass nearby, a dozen others ran around toting balls and brooms — dodging and weaving, throwing and diving, engrossed in an offbeat game that attracted gawkers and giggles.
Their amusement: a pastime once confined to the pages of a fantasy-book series.
Nowadays, though, the pursuit of the mythical quidditch thrives well beyond Harry Potter's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
And mere "muggles" (nonmagical people) can even partake.
"It's kind of the best-kept secret on campus," said Carly Kestler, 22, a senior who founded the OSU Quidditch League in 2008.
The high-flying game conceived by British author J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books has placed a growing number of real-life college players under its spell — albeit in modified form. The one-time courtyard lark among some New England undergraduates is now engaging more than 800 teams worldwide, fueled by open-minded athletes with a deep emotional connection to the popular novels.
"People are immediately curious," said Alicia Bradford, communication director for the International Quidditch Association, a New York nonprofit group that regulates the game and helps coordinate matches.
"Exposure is a big part of what's driving our growth."
The association hosted the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup in New York, where 46 teams, including those from Ohio State and Miami universities, have signed up to compete.
In previous years, the annual tournament was staged at Vermont's bucolic Middlebury College, where Alex Benape adapted the game in 2007. The inaugural cup drew just two teams.
Quidditch has since found plenty of traction in Ohio, said Peter Chen, a Purdue University sophomore and Midwest representative for the region's 200 squads.
In the spring, more than 200 students at Denison University joined a quidditch interest group on Facebook. An informational meeting in October at the University of Cincinnati attracted 45 people.
Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee, who last year bragged to Time magazine about the "Nimbus 2000" broomstick replica kept in his office, is so taken with the Columbus club that he has invited its 50 members to a private screening next Saturday of the upcoming movie "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1."
At Miami University, where the game was awarded club-sport status this fall, participation has grown from 20 students to 120 — now comprising nine teams plus a traveling squad — and gained enough spectator momentum to pack the sidelines during quidditch face-offs, said Matthew Perrine, the group's vice president.
"It's a little nerdy, but it's a cool nerdy," said Perrine, 19, whose dormitory today will host a party where fans can view a live webcast from the New York games. "There are so many Harry Potter fans who are intrigued."
Many present-day college students were in elementary school when the first Potter novel made its U.S. debut in 1998. They grew up with the characters of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Collegiate quidditch is played on an oval-shaped pitch — absent airborne players, of course, but including familiar, full-contact hallmarks found in the fictional competition.
"It's kind of like rugby and team handball or dodge ball," said Jen Nygren, 20, co-founder of the Denison Death Eaters.
In other words: It's not for the fainthearted.
"You are running every second," said Alexis Moody, 20, founder of the Marauders at Bowling Green State University. "It's a rough sport."
Participants often accessorize with scarves and capes but don't wear padding. Some do, however, opt for protective lacrosse goggles.
"This past weekend, I almost broke my nose," said Dan Miller, 19, president of the OSU team and a soccer player from Newark. "We've had someone break their pinkie finger. Somebody broke their ankle. You have to be wary."
Enthusiasm has grown so fervent that a few schools are petitioning to secure NCAA status (50 universities would need to sign on to warrant consideration), but many players frown on the idea.
"Quidditch has always been coed, even in the books," Moody said. "If it became NCAA-affiliated, it would completely ruin what the sport is."
A shared love of Potter, meanwhile, strengthens team ties off the pitch.
Ohio State players gather regularly for movie nights and in January will again stage a Yule Ball fundraiser inside the college's castle-like Pomerene Hall - a bash modeled after that in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book. They've also tinkered with recipes for homemade butterbeer, a favored libation of Hogwarts wizards.
"It's a great way to have fun with other people who are the exact same way as you," Miller said. "You get to live out your childhood fantasy."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com