NQL Preseason 2019 – The (One Arm) Wrap

The end of March brings the end of the Preseason tournaments for the 2019 NSW Quidditch League. It’s been an exciting start to the year, with two new teams on the ladder, old teams on the rise, new rivalries emerging, and plenty of new talent. What will the rest of the year hold in store? Ajantha Abey recaps the past two tournaments.

New Teams, Old Rivalries

The Sydney City Serpents and USYD Unspeakables spent the better part of 2018 fighting it out for the top of the table, and have undergone substantial changes in the offseason. The Division 1 Champions of last year, the Unspeakables, have seen the loss of a significant portion of their experienced players to the various (new) community teams, including captains Ajantha Abey and Samantha Chittenden, coaches Courtney Buckley and Harry Jones, and other veterans of the team including Nicholas Albornoz. Nevertheless, the incredible depth of the USYD three-team club has filled in the gaps with state level talent from the Unbreakables such as Ashan Abey, and other stars including Baldeep Uppal and India Rich. The retention of key players such as Max Brenner, Cooper Fitzgerald, Kim Govier, and Sanju Vairav, whom together make up the new team leadership, as well as State Shield MVP Haydn Johansson on top of these newcomers to the team have resulted in an Unspeakables that was able to emphatically win its first games of the season, and show that it is still one of the strongest teams on the ladder.

Julia Baker beating for USYD Unspeakables | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

The Serpents meanwhile, having lost a number of its old UNSW members to the Valkyries such as veterans Raj Kapoor and Ashwin Tembe, have picked up the likes of Ajantha Abey, Nicholas Albornoz, Usha Luckock and Brandon Frison from the Unspeakables, as well as Tom Brown from Macquarie and Lukasz Sikora from ANU. Another new face to the league, though not to the Serpents is Hayden O’Connell, who has been training with the Serpents for over a year now though has only just begun playing competitively this year. This year’s incubation has resulted in a strong debut this preseason and he’s transitioned from his old position of Hydration Officer to wing chaser with ease. Together, the 2019 Serpents present an impressive line-up that has been dominant throughout both preseason tournaments. The first Unspeakables-Serpents rematch of the year at the most recent tournament saw a win for the Serpents, though with the Serpents only 60 points up before the snitch catch, and USYD down several key players including Vairav, Brenner, Uppal, Glancy, and Johansson. The Serpents were also lacking notable names including Dale, Harrison, and Culf, though nevertheless, as the Unspeakables rebuild throughout the year, it’s likely the teams will continue to challenge and push each other, and the productive rivalry will continue, with the Serpents by no means unchallenged for the top position.

New Teams, New Rivalries

The biggest change to the NQL is undoubtedly the emergence of two new community teams on the scene, the North Sydney Nightmares and Valkyries Quidditch Club – interviews coming soon! Both teams feature veterans of the sport from top teams around the state, as well as some brand new talent, and are shaping up as strong contenders as they rapidly develop synergy. The Nightmares saw a clean sheet on their debut tournament, with the Valkyries losing out only to the 2018 finalists, Sydney City Serpents. Since the first preseason tournament, both teams have come back with far greater chemistry, and faced off for the first time in a highly anticipated match that saw the Valkyries catch from 20 points behind to end the game 90*-80. Valkyries, fielding the positively ancient UNSW line up of Raj Kapoor, Phil Vankerkoerle, and the recently rediscovered Michael Thompson, displayed some of their wonderful quaffle harmony of old, while the and UTS line in Gunny Gunewardene, Trish Herrera, and Clare Brauer, and Newcastle line in Tom Russell, Jackson Shields, and Maddi Mouton, lent Nightmares with its own level of synergy on top of a dominance in the beater game led by Harry Jones and recent-convert Samantha Chittenden. In addition to these old stars, joining his sister Isobel on the Valkyries, newcomer to the sport Matt Rennie brings a lot of new talent to the beater game, while new find David Cumming is a rapidly rising chasing star for the Nightmares. With both teams quickly improving, only having lost one game a-piece so far this year, we can be sure to expect great quidditch from both, many more exciting games to come, and challenges to the Serpent and Unspeakable high-fliers not far on the horizon. 

David Cumming chasing for North Sydney Nightmares | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

The Ever-Expanding Middle Tier

For all the talk of the old and new rivalries emerging this year, possibly one of the most exciting revelations of the NQL preseason has been the amount of movement and relative parity among the vastly expanded mid-tier of the league. UNSW, a contender for the Division 2 title last year, though ending up in third place, having spent the better part of the last two years rebuilding, have made a clear statement that they are back on the rise. An out-of-range victory over last year’s Division 1 Newcastle and a strong game against Unspeakables at the first preseason tournament made this readily apparent. Their combined showing with UTS at the more recent NQL in Canberra (as the “Chippendale Corgis”) also displayed a remarkable and unprecedented strength, playing the Unspeakables in range, defeating ANU, and pushing the Serpents. Cameron Walker is an increasingly daunting force to be reckoned with, combined with an incredible return from speedy superstar Will Siomiak. Supported by veteran beaters Chris Rock and Kieran Ponnusamy, and relatively new but rising stars Skye Williams-Kelly and Kelsey Collins, the Corgis emphasised how much talent there is in the middle tier, so it will be exciting to see how these teams progress individually over the year. UNSW in particular already should provide a strong challenge for the new graduate teams, a match up we haven’t seen yet, with Anna Pellen a relatively new unsung hero for the team, and a strong debut from keeper Isobelle Nugent bolstering the team’s growing female talent. Meanwhile, Cameron Neale had a particularly notable performance for UTS in the first NQL of the year, keeping for two whole games and showing an exceptional knack for shot-blocking against some of the country’s best shooters.

Kelsey Collins beating for UTS | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

Newcastle and ANU, who round out the two teams after Unspeakables and Serpents guaranteed spots in the top division, also face major rebuilding years this season. Having lost several core members to Nightmares and Valkyries, Newcastle still retains many of its veteran and core players of the likes of James Hosford, Eleanora Leopardi, Timo Sommer, and Charlie Sims, while being coached by Bluetongues and Dropbear chaser-seeker-beater Jono O’Brien. The team has seen a fairly successful recruitment season and while competitive success eluded them against tough opponents at their first NQL, they made an impressive showing at the Canberra based NQL. George Curan has had ample opportunities to shine as one of the primary beaters for the Fireballs now, developing impressive synergy with Phoebe Hollott, and the focus Newcastle have shown on playing and training their talented field of new recruits should serve them well in the coming year. The ANU Owls meanwhile have had a tough start to the year, with a close win over last year’s Division 2 Hills Hippogriffs, and an overtime loss to the Macquarie Marauders in the first NQL preseason. A hard set of games against the Unspeakables, Serpents, and remarkably strong Corgis saw a set of losses on home soil, though the Owls proved they remained a competitive force with a decisive victory over Newcastle. While bolstered by the return of Joe Curtis and retention of old talent such as Logan Davis and Tom Morrissey, ANU need to continue developing their newer stars like Gabi Hawkins who can pull off incredible receiving plays, and use their beating pedigree to continue to maintain one of the club’s core strengths as they bring new players into the fold.

Harry Cutler keeping for USYD Unbreakables | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

The year also bodes exciting things for the USYD Unbreakables and Macquarie Marauders. Last year’s Division 2 champions, the Unbreakables (USYD B) have already and likely will continue to see a significant loss of their core players to the Unspeakables, as USYD reshuffles, with notable female stalwarts Isabelle Pesa, Tyler Barrow, and Emma Glancy, and India Rich all appearing in red. With ex-captain Alex Nielsen now on Nightmares, and keeping stars Willem de Gouw (also ex-captain) and Sam Feeney electing to play for the Unforgivables, USYD’s C Team, the Unbreakables is open for a new set of up-and-coming players. Unsurprisingly, Usyd has filled these gaps already, with long time beater Henry Fair moving from Unforgivables captain last year to Unbreakables captain this year, alongside chaser-seeker Taylor Angelo. The relatively new find, Harry Cutler, who joined the sport late last year is also joined by new recruit Maxim Schiller, and together the two made for a dynamic and imposing pair of keepers at the most recent NQL. Lucy Liu, Sammy Lim, and Alex Buist also number among USYD’s many talented new finds who have had impressive debuts for the team, and join the continuing members Atilla Konuk, Eloisa Perez-Bennets, Adam Ceh, and Yukitoshi Imaizumi-zhou who have been able to provide the team with a rock solid beater core. The Unbreakables have a long way to go to regain their former Division 2 Championship glory, but the team is in more than capable hands to make a gradual climb back up the ladder this year.

On the other side of last year’s division gap, at the bottom of Division 1, is Macquarie. After spending much of the previous year struggling to rebuild, the Marauders have had a remarkably successful recruitment season, bringing in fierce and talented new players such as Rebecca Robb as a chaser and seeker, as well as seeing their shrewd and speedy beater Quan Dang return from exchange. With much of the core of the team staying on from last year, Macquarie entered the year with a remarkable level of skill and synergy for what might be expected from any team in the pre-season, and their overtime win against ANU was a particularly exciting and telling of this. Standout performances from the incredibly fast Ryan Shields, inexhaustibly dynamic Xanthe Petridis, and irrepressibly ruthless Geoffrey Talbott, all part of the Marauders core, proved particularly notable. Nevertheless, while they provided a strong showing against the Unbreakables in Canberra, losses to Hills and Newcastle show that Macquarie still have a way to go and the middle tier in general is anything but predictable.

Macquarie Brooms Up against ANU in Over Time | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

The Rest of the Middle Tier?

Where the so called ‘middle tier’ ends is anyone’s guess, more so because the isolated location of the second NQL preseason meant that a number of teams were not in attendance. Not only was UTS combined with UNSW, but Hills Hippogriffs, USYD Unforgivables, and Macarthur Weasleys were all notably absent, and as such, only so much can be said about them. In the first preseason NQL, the Hippogryffs offence led by a stronger-than-ever Jack Ball proved particularly effective against Macquarie and even the ANU Owls, with a further strong win over the Wollongong Warriors. The Weasleys also had a strong start to the year, putting up a decent challenge to the Nightmares and also soundly dispatching the Unforgivables and Warriors. While unable to make the Canberra NQL, their usual core remains sound, including the ever improving Dropbear Arlyta Andrews and indefatigable Arfy Parpadam, and suggests that the Weasleys will put up another strong showing in the second division at least, this year. As USYD’s teams gradually take shape, it’s not entirely clear yet what form the Unforgivables will take, though with highly skilled players such as Sam Feeney and Ashleigh Chilton leading the team this year, among USYD’s absurd plethora of new talent rapidly improving through internal league tournaments, they could have an edge this year at teams fight it out towards the bottom of the ladder.

Unlike the above mentioned teams, however, the Wollongong Warriors, after slipping off the radar and gradually rebuilding in 2018, have recruited well for the 2019 season, and made a showing at both preseason tournaments. While the team still lacks tactical shape on field, they nevertheless retain a number of skilled players, including Portia O’Connor, and Dion Sheldon. Jesse Oke-Turner is also a significant addition to the team, previously of Macquarie Marauders, who top scored for the Warriors at the most recent tournament, and stands alongside talented new players such as Hannah McLennan and Kaleb Brande. Under the leadership of Krystina Semmler, as Wollongong undergoes a rebrand and continues rebuilding, if the team can continue growing this year, developing its leaders, passing on skills to its newest players, and working with the newly formed local Illawarra Unregistered Animagi Quidditch Club to keep improving, these combined with the clubs irrepressible energy will see big changes in the Wollongong club.

Jack Ball seeking for Hippogryffs against Matt Armstrong, previously of UQ Dumblebees, now of Macarthur Weasleys | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

What Will the Divisions Be?

With 14 teams in the NQL, it is possible we will see two divisions of seven teams, or potentially a top division of six teams and a bottom division of eight. The Serpents, Unspeakables, Owls, and Fireballs are all guaranteed division 1 spots, the positions also being offered to the Valkyries, Nightmares, and Unbreakables. Following this, depending on whether spots are accepted or declined, offers may also go to UNSW, the Weasleys, and Macquarie. Unbreakables are likely to remain in Division 2 where they can rebuild, so the question is whether UNSW take the opportunity to move up to Division 1, where they will likely be strong enough to make significant inroads up the rankings, or remain in division 2, where they will likely dominate. While it seems pointless, however, to speculate with the final decision likely to be announced in the very near future, what seems irrefutable at this stage if that the field is wide open for any team to rise up the ladder this year. There are many interesting story lines this year. Will the Unspeakables rise again to the challenge of the Serpents? Will the Nightmares or Valkyries prevail as the next graduate power? Will UNSW challenge the high flyers? Do ANU and Newcastle have what it takes to defend their top spots? Can the Unbreakables work their way back up towards the top of Division 2? Will the Weasleys hold onto their position on the ladder or will a new power emerge? Where will any of Hills/Unforgivables/UTS/Wollongong end up? How will the divisions even look?

With the huge player shifts from last year, and many teams back on the rise, no team is safe, no spot can be held secure, and the season should be one of the most exciting yet.

Isobelle Nugent keeping for UNSW – will this be their year? | Photo: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

Correction: The UTS shot blocking keeper was Cameron Neale