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Bracketology: Breaking down the NCCDC championships

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Picking the winner of this year's National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, in partnership with Raytheon, isn't going to be easy.

In this 10-team, one-and-done championship, unfolding April 24-26 in San Antonio, Texas, there are neither No. 1 seeds nor scouting reports. No game tapes to review and no pre-game predictions from Dick Vitale.

This game is not about Xs and Os and fast breaks; it's all about ones and zeros and firewalls. To win, these teams won't be defending the paint but cyber networks.

The tournament leading up to the finals had its fair share of Cinderella stories and upsets. Some sleepers, new to the competition, snuck up and ousted long-standing dynasties. It only goes to show that small, well-cultivated programs run by passionate professors and coaches can compete – and win – against world-class programs at top-tier schools.

It's still anyone's game. But it will require giving 110 percent, stepping up when it counts and the "intangibles" that will be the difference maker in crowning this year's winner.

For the 2015 competition, the top 10 teams have provided profiles, complete with stats and strategies to win. And, regardless of who wins the 2015 championship, we know this year's competition is going to be "Awesome, baby!"


University of Alaska Fairbanks
At-large Regional Champs
University of Alaska Fairbanks

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Coach: Dr. Orion Lawlor
  • Team roster: Will Showalter, Brahm Lower, Bucky Frost, Arsh Chauhan, Shane Tachick, Mike Moss, Jesse Zhang, Noah Betzen
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Seven
  • 2015 season returning players: Four veterans, four rookies
  • Appearances at nationals: Four, placed third in 2014

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: Their most effective tactic was egress filtering, setting up a network firewall on each computer. At nationals last year, they got to talk with their red team attacker, and he actually had several machines that he could get into, but couldn't control because his packets were filtered. Firewalls are very well understood, but most people pay attention to incoming traffic at the edge, which is good, but controlling outgoing traffic on each machine can help when the bad guys are already inside your network.
  • Strengths: They've been doing a ton of prep this year, with the returning students preparing and running practice competitions to train the new students, meeting three times a week. Preparing all the machines and scenarios for a CCDC contest acts like a sort of meta-CCDC, which is good practice for both sides. The coach acts as the red team, trying to take down the team's computers from outside, and during each practice contest, students get better at finding his intrusions and keeping him out. After dominating his team during their first practice contest, the coach began to pull his punches; however, by their last contest, he threw everything he could at them, which they had all locked down.
  • Weaknesses: They had several excellent students graduate, so they have a young team this year.
  • Strategy to win: Play like they practice!


 


University of Maryland Baltimore County
Mid-Atlantic Regional Champs
University of Maryland Baltimore County

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Baltimore, Maryland
  • Coach: Dr. Charles Nicholas and Dr. Richard Forno (Note: They do not consider themselves coaches but faculty advisers and resources)
  • Team roster: John Beers (team captain), Tyler Campbell, Anh Ho, Joshua Domangue, Chris Gardner, Jacob Rust, Julio Valcarcel, and David Young
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Six
  • 2015 season returning players: Two veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: First
  • Other past victories: Placed second in Maryland Cyber Challenge twice

Team Captain's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: Recognizing that it is a game. In the past, they focused too much on securing the machines and trying to kick the red team out. This year they accepted that the red team was going to get in. Most importantly, they put an emphasis on securing and completing injects that tied to the theme of the competition.
  • Strengths: At regionals, they received many compliments on how their team was fluid and cooperative. They each have roles and follow them. No one complains or gives up. Their team captain's role is to be social and their link to the white team, focusing on the bigger picture. They have a co-captain who tracks what the technical team is doing, assigns tasks, and helps with problems.
  • Weaknesses: At regionals the team was not able to trace exactly what the red team was doing on the machines. They knew they were in, and even though the students killed some malicious processes and kicked them out, the red team always got back in immediately. After the competition, the students talked to the red team and they shared that the students needed to get better at monitoring network traffic because that will reveal what the red team is doing. This is something the team will be practicing and will be prepared to do at the nationals.
  • Strategy to win: Adapt. UMBC has never been to the nationals before, which means they have no past experiences to use to formulate a strategy. If injects at nationals pull team members away to complete a challenge, they must be prepared to operate a man down. If there is a server they have no experience with, they must figure it out on the spot. From what they have read about nationals, it is unpredictable and always requires you to think on your feet. The team that adapts best will win it all.


 


DePaul University
Midwest Regional Champs
DePaul University

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Chicago, Illinois
  • Coach: Jean-Philippe Labruyere
  • Team roster: Ryan Haley, Matthew Hallagan, Alex Jason Leahu, Tiberus Cacuci-Simionas, Li-Wey Lu, Matthew Anderson, David Berg, Phillip Luk
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Ten
  • 2015 season returning players: Six veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: Once, in 2010
  • Other past victories: Second place in 2012 National Cyber League (NCL), third place in 2014 National Cyber League Gold Bracket, and good record in state and regional CCDC competitions

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: The team had great chemistry, a super-dedicated coach, and devoted plenty of time to practice. The key was probably the respect each member had for one another, superb team organization and "redundancies" in skillsets. For each area, the team has a primary team member responsible and, at least, two backups. Also the team was hugely motivated to honor the memory of Erich J. Spengler who passed away and was well known to many members of team and a mentor to them. "We also have our secret weapon but I can't cover that here or it wouldn't be a secret," said Coach Labruyere.
  • Strengths: Great team chemistry, a dedicated group of students with a passionate interest in security, a really a close group of friends who work together and play together and genuinely like and care for each other ... and of course ... a great coach, said the coach.
  • Weaknesses: Having to take time away from competition to deal with family, friends, school, life, etc. Also, they haven't competed at the nationals since 2010.
  • Strategy to win: A level playing field, plenty of sleep, not worrying about exams in class and of course, some degree of good fortune.


 


Rochester Institute of Technology
Northeast Regional Champs
Rochester Institute of Technology

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Rochester, New York
  • Coach: Bill Stackpole
  • Team roster: Bryan Harmat, Jared Stroud, Tommy Chin, Tyler Fornes, Jaime Geiger, Edward Mead, Ian Flournoy, Scott Vincent
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Eight
  • 2015 season returning players: Three veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: Third. Won in 2013, and placed second in 2014.
  • Other past victories: Various positions in National Cyber League, US Cyber Challenge, Information Security Talent Search, B-Sides capture-the-pile, and Shmoocon Hack Fortress

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: A lot of hard work and positive attitudes
  • Strengths: A cohesive and collaborative team with spirit and drive.
  • Weaknesses:Never enough time to prepare.
  • Strategy to win: Work together as a team to secure the infrastructure, complete as many injects as possible and keep a positive attitude.


 


University of Nebraska, Kearney
North Central Regional Champs
University of Nebraska, Kearney

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Kearney, Nebraska
  • Coach: Dr. Angela Hollman
  • Team roster: Devin McIntyre, Michael Odell, Nery Cabrera, Doug Perez, Olivier Avande, Jesus Moreno
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: First
  • 2015 season returning players: All rookies
  • Appearances at nationals: First

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: Communication was huge. The team constantly talked to each other and collaborated really well. Every member of the group has a different background, and the coach felt like the captain delegated well. They also have a strong, united culture within the networking and telecom program, which allowed them to be comfortable with each other in a lab setting. The team also had a sense of calm that was incredible. They joked afterwards that they were calm because they were oblivious and perhaps that is the new business strategy.
  • Strengths: An unknown team with a strong sense of fundamentals, and a diverse skill set.
  • Weaknesses: Only six members, and are scared of pineapples. "We are noobs," Hollman said.
  • Strategy to win: A core fundamental approach that doesn't involve a lot of flair or fuss.


 


ITT Technical Institute – Boise
Pacific Rim Regional Champs
ITT Technical Institute – Boise

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Boise, Idaho
  • Coach: Matt Fuhrman
  • Team roster: Nic Day, Ryan Carrie, Russell Nielsen, Shawn Wood, Harrison Lumia, John Baughman, Matt Bergevin, Edward Martinez
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Three
  • 2015 season returning players: Two veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: First

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: A well-rehearsed strategy where everyone knew their role and what they needed to do. The team dynamics were such that the team captain could call on someone to handle a situation and knew that they could/would do it.
  • Strengths: A strategy playbook, team cohesion, everyone brought something to the table, professionalism, dedication, and passion.
  • Weaknesses: Lack of experience competing at a national level.
  • Strategy to win: Keep up the hard work. Adapt and overcome challenges. Continued professionalism and dedication


 


Southern Utah University
Rocky Mountain Regional Champs
Southern Utah University

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Cedar City, Utah
  • Coach: Dr. Rob Robertson
  • Team roster: Alexander A. Rodriguez-Vargas, Joshua Maxwell, Jared Ross, Landon Beach, Shea Esplin, Shaun Stapley, Brance Boren, Damien Anderson
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: First
  • 2015 season returning players: All rookies
  • Appearances at nationals: First
  • Other past victories: Team members placed first and second at the 2014 Southern Utah Code Camp

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: Since this was their first season participating in CCDC events, they didn't know what to expect and tried to cover all of the bases in preparation for the competitions. Another secret to their success was that they decided to only worry about the competition (the red team) and overcoming the challenges placed in their way instead of worrying about how other teams were fairing or how they were doing overall.
  • Strengths: Their biggest strength is their ability to work together as a team; they all have their areas of expertise and are willing to let others take the lead if the task better fits their skillset. Also worthy of mention is their ability to stay calm in very stressful situations. They are pretty good at "load balancing" between team members.
  • Weaknesses: This is the first time anyone on the team will be competing so they are not quite sure what to expect or what to study. In their minds, this puts them at a disadvantage compared to teams that have participated before and have a better idea where to focus their efforts.
  • Strategy to win: Similar to regionals, they will focus on the services most important to our business model and focus on working well as a team.


 


University of Central Florida
Southeast Regional Champs
University of Central Florida

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Orlando, Florida
  • Coach: Dr. Tom Nedorost
  • Team roster: Carlos Beltran, Jason Cooper, Austin Brogle, Conner Brooks, Kevin Colley, Alex Davis, Nathan Dennis, Tyler Dever, Kevin DiClemente, Andres Giron, Jonathan Lundstrom, Shane Welch
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Three
  • 2015 season returning players: Five veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: Three. Placed first in 2014.
  • Other past victories: 2014 Collegiate Cybersecurity Championship Cup winner

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: "If we told you, it wouldn't be our secret any longer," Nedorost said.
  • Strengths: The team is extremely effective at detecting and responding to social engineering schemes like the previous question.
  • Weaknesses: "Do you think we're really going to answer this question?" Nedorost asked.
  • Strategy to win: All 10 Regional winning teams are highly skilled and fiercely competitive. To win this championship, UCF needs to want to win it more than any other team competing at Nationals.


 


The University of Texas at San Antonio
Southwest Regional Champs
The University of Texas at San Antonio

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: San Antonio, Texas
  • Coach: Miroslav "Mirek" Bartik, Dr. Nicole Beebe
  • Team roster: John Hollenbeck, Chelsea Hicks, Justin Gray, Brooks Stevens, Derek Bassham, Jose Mireles, Mark Pena, Arturo Garcia
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Seven
  • 2015 season returning players: Five veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: Three. Last time was 2006.
  • Other past victories: Third place in 2014 Panoply Capture the Flag

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: Organization, clear distribution of roles, experience
  • Strengths: Windows administration, Linux administration, enterprise software administration, windows security, Linux security, network security, forensic investigation, forensic analysis, cloud technology, policy writing, web development
  • Weaknesses: Binary reversing and web exploitation.
  • Strategy to win: Work as a team. Beat all the other teams.


 


University of California, Berkeley
Western Regional Champs
University of California, Berkeley

 



 

Team Stats:

  • Location: Berkeley, California
  • Coach: Maximilian Burkhardt
  • Team roster: Skyler Rojas, Matthias Vallentin, Jethro Beekman, Eric Atkinson, Jenny Huang, Sebastian Merz, Arlan Jaska, Jack Chou
  • Years competing in NCCDC tourney: Three
  • 2015 season returning players: Four veterans
  • Appearances at nationals: Two. Second consecutive year.

Coach's Analysis:

  • Secret to winning regionals: "Our secrets to winning regionals will remain secrets, but our overarching strategy is built on what we learned from nationals last year: assume the red team is in, track them, and put up a strong, informed fight on Day Two," said Burkhardt.
  • Strengths: Their inject performance and Linux/BSD experience.
  • Weaknesses: Dealing with Windows.
  • Strategy to win: To win the championship, they'll need to communicate well, handle priorities effectively, and respond to incidents with a plan.

Published: 04/14/2015

Last Updated: 04/28/2015

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