The initial field of 1,500 teams has been whittled down to 44 semifinalists. They will resume competing Jan. 17 in a three-day session in hopes of becoming one of the finalists.
So far, the teams have competed in the virtual arena. The finalists will meet face to face March 26-30 at the National Harbor's Gaylord National Convention Center in Baltimore.
"I was an intelligence officer for the Navy. Satellite imagery was the big thing. . . . Now it's evolved to cybersecurity," said Kirk Eleazer, 49, an agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency who recently concluded a four-year stint as the team's coach. His son Kristopher is team captain.
"These kids are at the cusp of this new era. They're coming around at the right time," said Eleazer, of Williamstown.
Eleazer said the importance of cyberdefense was underscored by the breach of 40 million credit and debit card accounts at Target stores nationwide between late November and mid-December.
At each stage of the competition, with increasing degrees of difficulty, the teams are presented with a series of scenarios in which computer systems have been compromised.
They have to ascertain the authorized administrators, and, from there, determine how the system was breached. They get points for fixing a problem, and have six hours to complete the task.
"I'm the type of person that likes to sit down and learn stuff hands-on," said Tyler Nicolella, 18, who graduated from Washington Township High School last year. "I really like how these key players in the world, like Windows and software manufacturers, are playing a big role in this competition."
Sponsors include the federal Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the defense technology firm Northrop Grumman Corp., and AT&T.
The Gloucester County squadron is not the only group in South Jersey vying for one of the top trophies. There also is a team from Toms River.
Nicolella's father, Richard, works for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office in information technology.
He recently took over command of the squadron from Eleazer and led training sessions on cybersecurity at Rowan University in preparation for the competition, the team's first.
"I think it's a blessing to get this far our first year," said Kristopher Eleazer, 17.
He and Nicolella are considering pursuing studies in cyberdefense in college. Eleazer is applying to the Naval, Air Force, and Coast Guard Academies.
Nicolella, who plans to take classes at Camden County College before moving on to a four-year college, said being able to work with sophisticated software would give him an edge in college.
"One of the things we try to teach the kids, if you are very serious about continuing with this, you can write your own ticket," Kirk Eleazer said. "It's a new area. Not only the military, but law enforcement is looking into it in terms of protecting our security."
Learning about cyberdefense has already paid dividends for his son. When his computer has a problem, Kristopher Eleazer said, "instead of calling IT personnel, I can fix it myself."