By Emily Erlien

For the first time since 2015, Montreat College’s Cyber Defense Competition team will advance to the regional Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (SECCDC) starting March 10-11, 2021.

SECCDC is a simulation of real-world scenarios that can occur in any organization. Starting tomorrow, among the rows of computers filling Montreat College’s cybersecurity lab, eight students will be focused intently on one thing: protecting, or “hardening,” their assigned systems against attack. The students play the part of a security operations center on the “blue team” while the “red team,” a team of professional ethical hackers, works against the team of students to try to breach their defense. This isn’t a competition for the fainthearted.

Just a few short weeks ago, Montreat College’s Cyber Competition Team participated in the SECCDC virtual qualifier round with 22 schools. “In the qualifier, our team met in the cyber lab from 3 p.m. – 8 p.m. and were kept busy hardening our systems, monitoring for abnormal traffic or indicators of compromise (IOCs), and responding to incidents once breached,” says team member Ethan, before going on to describe the environment as “hectic and fast-paced.”

“We have a young team, many who haven’t participated in SECCDC before,” says Kelli Burgin, cybersecurity department chair and one of the team’s coaches. “The other colleges and universities in our region have strong, experienced teams, and we knew qualifying for regionals would be a challenge. But the students never quit. They kept pushing through the entire qualifier, focusing on learning for the next competition. That determination paid off when they qualified for regionals.”

Only eight of the 22 institutions that competed during SECCDC qualifiers are proceeding to regionals on March 10-11. Besides Montreat College, the schools are Auburn University, Clemson University, Kennesaw State University, University of North Florida, University of West Florida, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and College of Charleston. Regionals will not be an easy competition, but the winning team will represent the Southeast at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in Orlando, an added incentive that drives the students even harder. Even with such hefty competition, junior cyber student Ethan believes the team has it in them to make it to nationals, “We are an eager team, and we have the will to succeed.”

From a variety of backgrounds and interests, the eight students on the primary team form a cohesive whole. For Addison, the team captain, the best part of the competition so far has been “seeing everyone work together and pushing through a pretty brutal day.” Even with the grueling work, Montreat’s Cyber Defense Competition Team stands at a slight disadvantage: they are a young team with some freshman and sophomore students who haven’t had higher-level cyber classes yet. As Ethan puts it, “Many of us are getting our first opportunities to gain hands-on experience with some of the operating systems and network devices essential to cyber.” However, while the team may lack some experience, they aren’t lacking in determination. “I am confident our team can beat the learning curve and exceed expectations in regionals,” says Ethan.

While a win would be amazing, the team realizes this is more than just a competition. Elise, a senior cybersecurity student, believes that participating in the SECCDC helps each student build different sets of skills. “In hard skills, for example, you learn about things like your environment, commands for Linux, different applications for Windows, and Firewall rules,” she says, “while still growing soft skills like communication, building relationships with your team, handling conflict, and keeping an upbeat attitude when everything is being attacked or taken offline.”

While the details of what they will face in the regional competition are still largely unknown, Montreat’s cyber team knows the “red team” will challenge and test their skills, but they have done the preparation to put up their best cyber defenses. “Each member of the team has been seeking additional 1-on-1 guidance from cyber faculty and mentors with professional cybersecurity expertise to help with his or her assigned role,” says Ethan.

Prepared and ready for competition, the Montreat College Cyber Defense Team will be testing their skills March 10-11 at regionals, and the top three teams will be announced by the end of the week.