By  Jennifer McManamay
Photo of a UVA student from the back
UVA’s cyberdefense team repaired systems and repelled hackers to win the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Challenge competition. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications)

The University of Virginia undergraduate cyberdefense team ably cleared the last hurdle to fight for its fourth championship title in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

The Hoos earned the berth by beating nine teams in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, held March 23 at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland — but only after also placing first in the 23-team qualifying round for the regional finals, as UVA Today reported in January.

“On to the championships!” said Jack Davidson, the team’s faculty advisor, after the convincing win in Maryland.

“The Mid-Atlantic Region is one of the most competitive in the country,” said Davidson, a professor of computer science in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the cyberdefense program of study. “Advancing to the finals by winning the MACCDC is quite an achievement.”

UVA Cyber Defense Team
From left to right: Emil Baggs, Nick Winschel, Charlotte Miller, Lulu Han, Chase Hildebrand, Chris Marotta, Alek Schultz, Austin Tran and Shreyas Mayya. Contributed photo

This marks UVA cyberdefenders’ second consecutive MACCDC first-place win and their fourth since 2018. In that span, UVA was the national champion in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and has only missed one national finals appearance, in 2021.

The regional and national events, which have numerous industry sponsors and are a partnership with Raytheon, are designed for participants to both demonstrate and add to their understanding of the theory and practice of information security skills. 

Using real-world scenarios, student teams defend their “company” network infrastructure and business information systems from ongoing hacker attacks while also managing “injects,” which are normal day-to-day tasks that must be completed on deadline.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one thing that led to victory, said 2024 team captain Christopher Marotta, a fourth-year computer science major.

“So many factors play into scoring,” Marotta said, noting the team made a lot of points on the strength of their fundamental understanding of how the systems they were defending work. “That made troubleshooting some very difficult issues possible.”

While the team also lost some ground, the Hoos’ adept handling of business as usual may have carried the day.

“We did really great in injects, so when we lost a strong lead in service functionality points, our injects score allowed us to pull through in the end!” said Marotta, who has been involved with the University’s Computer and Network Security Club and cyberdefense team since his first year at UVA.

This was no small feat given the competition scenario called for teams to take over management of a newly integrated IT network following the merger of two companies. UVA’s cohesiveness and competency enabled them to ensure functionality and interoperability of the network while under a significant cyberattack.

In addition to Davidson, the 2024 team was coached by last year’s captain Emil Baggs (computer science, 2023). Competing with Marotta were Nick Winschel, Charlotte Miller, Lulu Han, Chase Hildebrand, Alek Schultz, Austin Tran and Shreyas Mayya.

The Hoos’ next stop is San Antonio, Texas, April 25-27, where they aim to bring a fourth national title home to Charlottesville.

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