The Charger Blog

University’s Hacking Team Qualifies for Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

Proving to be calm and cool under intense pressure, the University’s top cybersecurity students are seeking to move on to the national round of an immersive competition that challenges students to defend corporate networks and systems from active hackers.

March 4, 2020

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

Image of University's hacking team.
Later this month, the University of New Haven’s Hacking Team will take on schools from across the region as it participates in the Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

Samuel Zurowski ’21 spent most of his winter break thinking about the ways he could defend networks and systems against active hackers. He and his fellow University of New Haven hacking team members practiced together via Zoom meetings to get ready for the qualifying round of the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition that would test their ability to “operate, secure, manage, and maintain a corporate network.”

“We did a lot of preparation for how we were going to operate and communicate as a team because that is a key factor in these competitions,” says Zurowski, the team president.

Team member Tyler Thomas ’20 says they worked, too, on soft skills: report writing, developing a business plan, public speaking, and preparing impromptu presentations.

The time spent over break, after class, and on the weekends was absolutely worth it, Zurowki says. The team – Thomas, Zurowski, captain Ilya Shavrov ’20, Tyler Balon ’18, ’21 M.S., Charles Barone '22, Killian Meehan ’23, Mathew Piscitelli ’20, and Robert Serafin ’20 excelled, qualifying for the Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NECCDC) March 20 to 22 at the University of Maine in Orono.

"We are not focused on merely training cybersecurity professionals, but continually striving to develop the next generation of leaders in the domain of cybersecurity."Vahid Behzadan, Ph.D.

With a spot in the nationals on the line, they’ll face teams from Champlain College, Northeastern University, Pace University, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), the United States Military Academy at West Point, University at Albany, the State University of New York at Buffalo, University of Maine, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Sponsors of the competition include Raytheon; Amazon Web Services; Palo Alto Networks, an Amazon Web Services partner; the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade; RSM, a global audit tax and consulting company; and PTC, a computer software company.

Vahid Behzadan, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science and data science and the team’s adviser, says he was particularly impressed with how calm and collected the team members were in the opening online round, competing together for four hours in a University computer lab.

"The team had come under multiple attacks at the same time and had to defend their network under tremendous pressure," he says. "In the first few minutes, I was slightly worried that the team may lose its cohesiveness under such stress. However, I soon realized there was absolutely no need to worry. The team quickly regained control of the situation, and they even lightened the mood with jokes and laughter. It was one of the many moments that made me feel proud to be the coach for this wonderful and talented team."

Shavrov says one of the keys to their success is how well they work together as a team, with each member playing an integral role.

"The guidance from our experienced members, Tyler and Samuel, and the new perspectives provided by Charles and Killian allowed us to synergize and maximize our capabilities," he says. "Our team practiced how to set up the services and systems that we would encounter. Then we learned how to harden those systems to prevent an attacker from gaining unauthorized access. We understood that the competition would be stressful, so having a set plan to fall back on helped keep us in line and calm."

Earlier competitions they team participated in focused mostly on the offensive side of cybersecurity, with students working on hacking other systems, but this competition centers on defending networks and systems against active hackers.

"The best part about being a member of the hacking team is I know when I graduate that I will be prepared for any cybersecurity role I pursue."Tyler Thomas '20

"Our team took on the challenge of pivoting from offense to defense, preparing for this new competition with great enthusiasm and dedication," Dr. Behzadan says. "They rapidly trained themselves on how to deploy and use state of the art tools for monitoring and detection of intrusion attempts in enterprise-grade networks."

One of just 21 universities in the nation designated by the National Security Agency as an Academic Center of Excellence in Cyber Operations, the University continues to beat teams from the nation’s top universities – and cybersecurity programs that are far larger.

"We are not focused on merely training cybersecurity professionals, but continually striving to develop the next generation of leaders in the domain of cybersecurity," Dr. Behzadan says.

Now the focus is on getting ready for the regionals, with the goal of moving on to the nationals. "Getting through the qualifiers and putting the name of our university next to tough competitors such as RIT and West Point has indeed supercharged our momentum," Dr. Behzadan says.

Team members say they love the adrenaline rush and how the real-world scenarios that unfold in the competitions reflect what they’ll be doing in their future cybersecurity careers.

"The best part about being a member of the hacking team is I know when I graduate that I will be prepared for any cybersecurity role I pursue," Thomas says. "My career opportunities have definitely expanded since participating in the hacking team. During interviews, employers love to hear about it because they competed in the same competitions when they were in college. I have had managers and recruiters from some of the best organizations in the world reach out to me to establish professional relationships because of the hacking team."