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 large toddler, surrounded by UCF’s title-winning team at the annual National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. The Knights repeat as national champions and have now claimed five titles in the last 10 years, more than any team in the country. It’s also one of the most satisfying wins for Tom Nedorost, coach and founder of the UCF’s Collegiate Cybersecurity Competition Team (known as “C3”).
“I knew we had the skills and preparation necessary to win,” Nedorost says. “But this is a young team. Most of the members had never competed at the national level, 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 practices up to 15 hours a week, almost as much as teams competing in NCAA sports. At competitions, UCF stands out because of its matching shirts and khakis.
“We want to look professional,” Nedorost says.
The uniform also sends a message to the rest of the field in case they aren’t familiar with all the national championships: UCF means business.
After the team arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday, Nedorost had them take in some Texas culture. They went out to see the world’s largest pair of cowboy boots. They ate Texas-style brisket. Then they settled into their rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort.
It would be the final chance to relax their minds for the next 48 hours.
Thursday, April 21: The Chaos Begins
This year, 171 colleges and universities in America entered teams into the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. The 10 regional champions had come to San Antonio to vie 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’re confident because I don’t know if anyone trains like we do.”
Just before the first day of competition started, Alex Keller, the coach from Stanford, came up to several UCF teammates and said what everyone knew. “You’re the team to beat.”
The competition goes something like this. Each team operates the back end of a business operation — this year it was a video-game supply company. They have to handle the IT department, the customer service department, ecommerce and payroll. The teams run it all using a poorly configured network with security risks.
From the moment the eight-person teams put their hands on the keyboards, the day at work is not a smooth one.
A professional group of penetration testers from established companies like Abbott Laboratories is known as the “red team.” They’re constantly trying to find vulnerabilities in the networks so they hack them.
While the UCF’s C3 team is still learning this new system, the red team quietly looms as a threat. At the same time, a few annoying actors known as the “orange team” are frequently contacting the team as customers with questions and complaints.
Some of the queries are a bit obscure. “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.”
The teams are required to respond to every customer, even while the entire network is under attack.
“It’s hectic from the moment we sit down,” Durand says. “We’re accustomed to it, though, because we intentionally create stress and chaos during mock competitions in practice. It’s good for teambuilding.”
At 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Durand is finally able to sit in his quiet hotel room.
“I’m brain dead,” he says, “but we 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 figured they were at or near the top of the standings entering day two. They could only guess because the running results are kept private until they’re tabulated for Saturday’s announcement of the top three teams.
First-time nationals competitor, Kelsey “KJ” Hall, felt good about UCF’s prospects for a top-three finish. Eight hours later she was recovering in the hotel.
“Mentally, I’m not the same person tonight as I was this morning,” she says.
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 “onlys” next to her name. She’s the only female on the UCF team, and she’s the only competitor who doesn’t major in computer science or IT — she’s a sophomore majoring in forensic science.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you doing this cyber defense thing?’ ” says Hall, who’s also the youngest member of the team. “We’re all in different stages of college. We have different strengths. And we like to challenge each other. It’s hard for some people to understand, but this is fun for us. That’s why we have such a strong team.”
It’s 9 p.m. Hall could be at a dinner with the NCCDC sponsors. It’s an opportunity for students to mingle with representatives from major tech companies and go home with a multiple choice of job offers. Hall has a higher priority at this moment.
“I’m studying for my American Chemistry Society exam,” she says. “On the 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 could finally eat a leisurely breakfast without thinking of upcoming tumult. A different set of nerves, however, were ramping up.
“It’s a waiting game to see how we finished,” Hall says. She and her teammates wore their bright blue button-down shirts, black pullovers, and khakis (always the khakis) for the noon announcement.
Third place: Stanford.
Second place: Dakota State.
“And the winners of the 2022 NCCDC championship, the team from 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 IT 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,” Nedorost says. “Some teams have been doing this for 17 years and have never been to nationals or even to regionals. To win it as often as we’ve won it says a lot about the talent pool at UCF and the passion of our students for this.”
As for future competitions, most of UCF’s championship team is eligible to compete for at least three more years. The teams from around the country must be groaning when Nedorost says, “I expect us to be strong for a while longer.”