BY CHRIS WARREN : DECEMBER 6, 2013

San Antonio schools post impressive results in the first round of the national CyberPatriot competition

With just an hour remaining in the six-hour-long first round of the CyberPatriot competition, Stephen La Rosa was at a loss. A member of the Alamo Academies Information Technology Security Academy (ITSA) team, La Rosa and his teammates have been training for months to get ready for CyberPatriot, an annual competition that challenges more than 1,000 high school and middle school teams nationwide to identify and fix a slew of viruses and other vulnerabilities that can cripple computers and networks. CyberPatriot is an increasingly popular and vigorously contested scholastic competition that is aimed at cultivating the skills of young people in the vital realm of cyber security. (Our August edition included a feature story about cyber security in San Antonio.)

Yet with just a short amount of time remaining in the competition’s first round, on the weekend of Nov. 15, La Rosa knew his squad had to toss everything they’d done and start from scratch. At the same time, he and his teammates knew that literally rebooting the computer at such a late stage was a big risk. “It was nerve racking,” says La Rosa, a senior who last year was an alternate on the ITSA team that advanced to the national championships. “Normally, restarting that late in the round is certain death.”

[lightbox link=”http://www.alamoacademies.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/CTTC-Adrian-Radl-Sean-Johnson-Stephen-La-Rosa-Round1.jpg” thumb=”http://www.alamoacademies.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/CTTC-Adrian-Radl-Sean-Johnson-Stephen-La-Rosa-Round1-300×199.jpg” width=”300″ align=”center” title=”CTTC – Adrian Radl, Sean Johnson, Stephen La Rosa – Round1″ frame=”true” icon=”image”]

Normally. This time, however, La Rosa and his cohorts were able to regroup and—thanks to the fact that they had meticulously recorded everything they had done during the first five hours of the round—managed to figure out what they had been missing and race quickly to find and solve all the necessary problems. The result for La Rosa’s team, one of four ITSA squads participating, was a perfect score of 200 points. Already, La Rosa says his team is thinking ahead to the next round, which takes place this weekend. “We are confident and worried at the same time,” says La Rosa, who notes that already the problems that teams are being asked to solve are distinctly more difficult than last year.

Many Victories

The perfect score by the New Braunfels team was just one of the highlights for the 85 San Antonio teams participating in this year’s CyberPatriot competition. One of the teams from Holmes High School also posted a perfect 200, while teams from Harlandale and McCollum High Schools each scored an impressive 190. The simple fact that San Antonio had so many teams competing in CyberPatriot—which is divided into open and ROTC-specific service divisions, was a victory. In fact, much larger Los Angeles was the only metropolitan area in the country to field more teams.

More pointedly, it was the overall quality of the performance by San Antonio squads in the first round that was most impressive. Of the top 100 scores posted around the entire country 12 came from right here in San Antonio. To be clear, though, this superior result was not due to happenstance or good luck. In large part, it is thanks to the determination and hard work of individual coaches and players. For example, Arthur Celestin, who coaches four open division teams at Southwest High School (along with three middle school teams), says that his students meet twice a week to practice, plot strategy and figure out what they need to learn to be successful.

A Community Effort

There’s much more to it, though, than a bunch of students sitting around computer screens thinking about ways to foil cyber criminals. Students involved with the CyberPatriot competition get a lot of help from San Antonio’s technology community, in both the business world and the military. Teams throughout the city have mentors from companies including Rackspace as well as the U.S. military and government agencies helping them learn to solve the challenging technical problems posed during the competition. In addition, there were a series of full-day training sessions, clinics and practice sessions available to all teams this past summer and fall, including one that was held at Rackspace. In other words, local business, government and military leaders have decided that one of the best ways to accelerate San Antonio’s already strong national reputation in cyber security is to get as many young people interested in the field as possible.

With San Antonio fielding so many teams, getting kids involved with CyberPatriot doesn’t seem to be too daunting a challenge. There are a lot of ways to draw students in, says Celestin from Southwest High School. “Some of them will join for the camaraderie and fellowship the program offers. Others are there for the learning of new skills and the excitement of the mental sport,” he says. “Some students and their parents are very motivated by future job prospects and the contribution they can make to national security.”

None of those long-term benefits are really on La Rosa’s mind, though. As an alternate on the team that made it to the national championships last year, La Rosa would like to make a return trip—albeit this time as a fully participating team member. To do that, he knows that his team will have to consistently perform at a high level in the first three rounds of the competition. “We’re aiming as high as we can,” he says.

And we’ll continue to follow the progress of San Antonio’s teams as the competition moves ahead.