Metropolitan State University students had never participated in a cybersecurity tournament, so a university team's second-place finish in the recent Minnesota Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition was a pleasant surprise.

"We went into the competition as big underdogs, which is why it's a big deal that the students came in second," says Faisal Kaleem, associate professor in information and computer sciences and the students' advisor.

"I was thrilled" with the team's second-place finish, says Neal Coleman, a computer science major who served as team captain. "It was very unexpected."

Eight students comprising the Metropolitan State team squared off against eight other Minnesota higher-education squads in the annual competition at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The teams were charged with protecting a simulated company's computer network against hacking from Twin Cities-area IT professionals. It modeled the ongoing cat-and-mouse scenarios that regularly occur in real-world businesses.

"It was not only about defending the company's computer system," says Kaleem, "but ensuring the system remained up and running."

Kaleem says Metropolitan State students-who met every week on Saturday mornings for two months prior to the tourney-exhibited exemplary teamwork in keeping the system operating. And they reacted promptly when hackers attempted to infiltrate the fictitious firm both physically and virtually. In fact, had the students filed a better post-event incident report, they may well have won first place, he says.

"For me, the exercise was as close to realistic as you could get," says Brian Shaffer, a computer science major and team member. "It gave me a lot of hands-on experience that I hadn't had before."

Overall, Kaleem says he was "big-time" proud of the students, especially considering this was their first tournament. Lake Superior College in Duluth won the Feb. 21 tournament.

Laughed Kaleem, "I told the team, 'Just don't come in ninth. If you come in eighth, I'll be very happy.'"

The students will be recognized for their second-place finish at a May 12-13 Secure360 conference in Saint Paul attended by many companies that recruit computer-science graduates. Kaleem says the students' accomplishment will enhance their resumes and networking and career opportunities.

Since the competition, a new Metropolitan State student club has been formed called Cybersecurity and Computer Forensics. Kaleem says he expects to draft some club members for the next Minnesota cybersecurity tourney. "Our goal," says Kaleem, "is to win the competition next time."