United Airlines Flight 1578 landed in Orlando on Saturday night with a carry-on you don’t see every day: a toddler-sized trophy, surrounded by the UCF title-winning team during of the annual Collegiate National Cyber Defense Competition. The Knights repeat as national champions and have now won five titles in just 10 years of existence, more than any team in the country. It’s also 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 the preparation to win,” Nedorost said. “But it’s a young team. Most of the members had never competed nationally, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived in San Antonio last Wednesday.
Wednesday April 20: Final preparations
Nedorost believes in preparing a little differently than most cybersecurity teams. The UCF group trains up to 15 hours a week, almost as much as teams participating in NCAA sports. During competitions, the UCF is distinguished by its matching jerseys and khakis.
“We want to look professional,” says Nedorost.
The uniform also sends a message to the rest of the peloton in case they are unfamiliar with all the Nationals: UCF means business.
After the team arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday, Nedorost introduced them to Texas culture. They went to see the biggest pair of cowboy boots in the world. They ate Texan brisket. Then they settled into their rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort.
This would be the last chance to relax the mind for the next 48 hours.
Thursday, April 21: the chaos begins
This year, 171 colleges and universities across America entered teams into the Collegiate Cyber Defense competition. The 10 regional champions had come to San Antonio to compete for the national title.
“Everyone notices when we walk in,” says team captain Aiden Durand, a computer science student graduating this spring. “Our clothes are part of that. But they also know about our success. We are confident because I don’t know if anyone trains like us.
Just before the start of the first day of competition, Stanford coach Alex Keller approached several UCF teammates and said what everyone knew. “You are the team to beat.”
The competition goes something like this. Each team runs the back-end of a business operation – this year it was a video game supply company. They must manage IT, customer service, e-commerce and payroll. Teams manage it all using a misconfigured network with security risks.
From the moment the teams of eight people get their hands on the keyboards, the working day is not serene.
A professional group of penetration testers from established companies like Abbott Laboratories is known as the “red team”. They are constantly trying to find vulnerabilities in networks in order to hack into them.
While the UCF C3 team is still learning this new system, the red team is quietly looming as a threat. At the same time, a few annoying cast members known as “Team Orange” frequently contact the team as customers with questions and complaints.
Some queries are a bit obscure. “I’m trying to buy Metal Gear Solid 3 and I can’t find it on your website.” And some of them are downright ridiculous. “It’s too hot outside, please do something.”
Teams are required to respond to every customer, even when the entire network is under attack.
“It’s hectic from the moment we sit down,” Durand says. “We’re used to it, though, because we intentionally create stress and chaos during mock competitions in training. It’s good for team cohesion.
At 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Durand can finally sit down in his quiet hotel room.
“I’m brain dead,” he says, “but we need to meet in a few minutes to strategize for tomorrow. It’s gonna be another long day.
Friday April 22: A new defensive weapon
The UCF team felt they were at or near the top of the standings at the start of day two. They could only guess as race results are being kept confidential until compiled for Saturday’s announcement of the top three teams.
Kelsey “KJ” Hall, a first-time Nationals competitor, was pleased with UCF’s prospects of a top-three finish. Eight hours later, she was recovering at the hotel.
“Mentally, I’m not the same person tonight as I was this morning,” she said.
Hall’s primary role in the competition was to take technical information and communicate it to customers and company stakeholders in understandable language. Hall has two “only” next to his name. She’s the only female on the UCF team, and she’s the only contestant who isn’t majoring in IT or computer science — she’s a sophomore majoring in forensic science.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you doing this cyber defense thing?’ said Hall, who is also the youngest member of the team. “We are all at different stages of college. We have different strengths. And we like to challenge ourselves. It’s hard for some people to understand, but it’s fun for us. That’s why we have such a strong team.
It’s 9 p.m. Hall could be at a dinner with NCCDC sponsors. This is an opportunity for students to rub shoulders with representatives of major technology companies and leave with a multiple choice of job offers. Hall has a higher priority right now.
“I’m studying for my American Chemistry Society exam,” she says. “On the way back to my room, I had to switch from my computer brain to my chemistry brain.”
Saturday, April 23: Securing Victory
For the first time since Wednesday, the UCF C3 team was finally able to have their breakfast quietly without thinking about the tumult to come. A different set of nerfs, however, were ramping up.
“It’s a waiting game to see how we finish,” Hall said. She and her teammates wore their bright blue button-up shirts, black sweaters and khakis (always khakis) for the midday announcement.
Third place: Stanford.
Second place: State of Dakota.
“And the winners of the 2022 NCCDC Championship, Team UCF!”
Along with Durand and Hall, the champions include computer science majors Christopher Fischer (who is also co-captain), Harrison Keating and Matthew McKeever and computer science majors Caleb Wisley, Colton Knight, Christopher Velez, Andy Pompura, Lawton Pittenger and Matthew O ‘Mara. .
“I hope everyone in the Orlando area understands that what our students have accomplished over the years is remarkable,” says Nedorost. “Some teams have been doing this for 17 years and have never been to nationals or even regionals. Winning it as often as we have won it speaks volumes about the talent pool at UCF and the passion for our students for this.
As for future competition, most UCF championship teams are eligible to compete for at least three more years. Teams across the country must groan when Nedorost says, “I expect us to be strong for a little longer.”