United Airlines Flight 1578 landed in Orlando on Saturday night with a carry-on you don’t see every day: a trophy the size of a big kid who won UCF’s title at the annual National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Surrounded by team. The Knights repeat as national champions and have now claimed five titles in just 10 years of existence, more than any team in the country. It was one of the most satisfying wins for Tom Nedorost, coach and founder of UCF’s collegiate cybersecurity competition team (known as “C3”).
“I knew we had the skills and preparation needed to win,” Nedorost says. “But it’s a young team. Most of the members had never competed nationally, so I didn’t know what to expect when we got to San Antonio last Wednesday.
Wednesday, April 20: Final preparations
Nedorost believes in preparing a little differently than most cyber security teams. UCF groups practice for 15 hours a week, almost as many teams competing in NCAA games. In competitions, UCF stands out because of its matching shirts and khakis.
“We want to look professional,” Nedorost says.
If they aren’t familiar with all the national championships, the uniform also sends a message to the rest of the field: UCF means business.
After the team arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday, Nedorost took them in on some Texas culture. They were out to see the world’s biggest pair of cowboy boots. He ate Texas-style brisket. They then settled into their rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort.
This will be his last chance to calm his mind for the next 48 hours.
Thursday, April 21: The Chaos Begins
There are about 200 colleges and universities in the US that deploy cyber defense teams. 10 regional champions came to San Antonio for the national title.
“Everyone notices when we walk in,” says team captain Aiden Durand, a senior computer science student who graduates this spring. “Part of it is our clothes. But they also know about our success. We are confident because I don’t know if anyone trains like us or not.”
Just before the first day of competition began, Stanford’s coach came up to several UCF teammates and said everyone knew. “You are the team to beat.”
The competition is something like this. Each team operates the back end of a business operation—this year it was a video-game supply company. They will have to handle the IT department, customer service department, ecommerce and payroll. Teams run this using poorly configured networks fraught with security risks.
From the time eight-person teams put their hands on keyboards, the work day hasn’t been easy.
Established companies such as Abbott Laboratories have a professional group of penetration testers known as the “Red Team”. They are constantly trying to find vulnerabilities in the network so that they can hack them.
While UCF’s C3 team is still learning this new system, the Red Team has quietly emerged as a threat. Also, some troubled actors known as the “Orange Team” are frequently approaching the team as customers with questions and complaints.
Some questions are a bit vague. “I’m trying to buy Metal Gear Solid 3 and can’t find it on your website.” And some of them are downright ridiculous. “It’s too hot outside, please do something about it.”
Teams are required to respond to each client, even if the entire network is under attack.
“It’s been busy since we sit down,” Durand says. “However, we are used to it, because we intentionally create tension and chaos during mock competitions in practice. It’s good for team building.”
At 8:30 on a Thursday night, Durand is finally able to sit in his quiet hotel room.
“I’m brain dead,” he says, “but we’ll have to meet in a few minutes to strategize for tomorrow. It’s going to be another long day.”
Friday, April 22: A new defense weapon
The UCF team felt they were entering day two or at the top of the standings. They could only speculate because ongoing results are kept private until the top three teams are tabled for Saturday’s announcement.
First-time national competitor, Kelsey “KJ” Hall, feels good about UCF’s chances of making the top-three. Eight hours later she was recovering at the hotel.
“Mentally, I’m not the same tonight as I was this morning,” she says.
Hall’s primary role in the competition was to take technical know-how and communicate it in an understandable language to customers and company stakeholders. There are two “only” next to his name in the hall. She is the only woman on the UCF team, and she is the only competitor not to major in computer science or IT—she has a secondary major in forensic science.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you doing this cyber defense work?’ says Hall, who is also the youngest member of the team. “We are all in different stages of college. We have different strength. And we like to challenge each other. It’s hard for some people to understand, but it’s fun for us. That’s why we have such a strong team.”
This 9 o’clock hall could be for dinner with NCCDC sponsors. It is an opportunity for students to mingle with representatives of leading tech companies and go home with a range of job options. Hall has a high priority at the moment.
“I’m studying for my American Chemistry Society exam,” she says. “On my way back to my room, I had to switch gears from my computer science brain to my chemistry brain.”
Saturday, April 23: Securing the Win
For the first time since Wednesday, UCF’s C3 team was able to have a leisurely breakfast without thinking about the uproar to come. However, a different set of nerves was rising up.
“It’s been a waiting game to see how we ended up,” Hall says. She and her teammates wore their bright blue button-down shirts, black sweaters and khakis (always khakis) for the afternoon announcement.
Third place: Stanford.
2nd place: Dakota State.
“And the winner of the 2022 NCCDC Championship, the UCF team!”
Along with Durand and Hall, champions include computer science heads Christopher Fisher (who also co-captain), Harrison Keating, and Matthew McKeever, and IT chiefs Caleb Wisley, Colton Knight, Christopher Velez, Andy Pompura, Lawton Pittanger and Matthew O. ‘Mara included. ,
“I hope that everyone in the Orlando area understands that what our students have achieved over the years is remarkable,” Nedorost says. “Some teams have been doing this for 17 years and have never gone for countrymen or even regionals. To win it as often as we do says a lot about the talent pool at UCF and our students’ passion for it.
For future competitions, most UCF championship teams are eligible to compete for at least three more years. Teams across the country will be moaning when Nedorost says, “I hope we stay strong for a while.”