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Seneca underdogs take top honor in cyber security competition

JROTC program members win their first CyberPatriot Challenge 

Seneca freshman Liam Knox participates in the CyberPatriot Challenge (Julie Smith/Special to The Sun).

Over the course of the school year, a self-proclaimed “ragtag” group of Seneca High School students has become the number one team in New Jersey to win the CyberPatriot Challenge.

The challenge, run by the Air Force Association, invites teams from Junior ROTC programs around the country to test their cyber skills. For three, six hour days, Seneca’s team identified security risks to simulated computers owned by real companies.

“It was almost as if they were simulating that they were the cyber defense team for Eli Lilly or Johnson and Johnson or maybe for the military,” explained Lt. Col. Greg Sevening.

The team, made up of freshmen Chris Cerra, Liam Knox and Luke Handt; sophomore Lea Mota; and junior Lauren Smith, had been preparing for Seneca’s first competition since September.

Seneca High School’s first CyberPatriot team took first place in the state. Front Row (Left to Right): Seneca Sophomore Lea Mota, Seneca Junior Lauren Smith
Back Row: Seneca Freshmen Liam Knox, Luke Handt, and Chris Cerra (Julie Smith/Special to The Sun).

Cerra took the reigns — he had participated in the competition before — but the other students had little experience with cyber security.

“In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing,” admitted Mota. “The more I went into the competition, I picked up on more things. I had this opportunity to grow.”

During the competition, the team earned points for each vulnerability they secured, like changing weak passwords or denying access to unsafe websites. Competition days, Smith said, were best described as “calm and chaotic.”

Seneca’s team members couldn’t gauge how well they were doing in comparison to other groups, so when they learned they had won, it came as a pleasant surprise.

“I really didn’t know we had a chance at winning it,” Knox explained. ”But when we did, I thought that was pretty cool.”

Seneca’s Junior ROTC always seeks new opportunities for its students, Sevening said. Participation in the CyberPatriot Challenge was coordinated by the students, who managed their own preparation, hand-picked the team and used their own computers to run the virtual programs.

“It was nice to see the students implement some of the leadership skills they learned in their coursework through JROTC and put it into action,” said Assistant Principal Sean Cassel. “Chris’ leadership style was definitely more of a cooperative one where he and his peers tackled each challenge together.”

Next year, the team plans to enter the competition again in the hope of starting a winning streak. But first, Seneca’s JROTC is preparing for Stellar Explorers, a challenge that focuses on space.

Sevening said he hopes by getting students involved with such programs,   it will inspire them to become the next generation of leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. While competing in CyberPatriot, Cerra found that passion.

“After my first competition, I fell in love with computers,” he said. “I already know what I’m going to do when I grow up. I want to pursue software engineering after this competition, because I just love software so much now.”

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