Nease NJROTC students excelling in cybersecurity


For years, the Nease NJROTC drill teams have excelled in competition. Now, they are about to be joined in their success by students in the program’s newest discipline, one based on an emerging field of study: cybersecurity.

In its third year, the Nease NJROTC CyberPatriot team has grown dramatically in number and in competitive victories.

“This year we did very, very good,” said CyberPatriot Commander Macayla Cole-Banner.

In its most recent season, the local team advanced to the semi-finals and finished second in the state and sixth nationally among participating JROTC programs.

CyberPatriot was created by the Air & Space Forces Association to inspire students to pursue careers in cybersecurity or any of the STEM disciplines. The program is open to all students in participating schools with separate brackets for middle schools, high schools and JROTC programs.

The Nease team practices throughout the school year, always seeking to improve, studying the basics at first and later moving on to more advanced methods, according to team member Kyan Sanchez. Team member Alexander Cummings, in his first year with the program, said he has learned a lot so far.

The students compete in a series of six-hour meets in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. In these contests, the students must find and repair cybersecurity vulnerabilities in virtual operating systems, and teams are scored on how secure they make the system.

According to Seth Scruggs, the Nease NJROTC team’s technical mentor, competitors first must answer investigatory questions and then find the flaws in a group of bugged images, a process he compares to “a cyber Easter egg hunt.”

“There are four different terminals or images that you compete on,” said team member Ruhi Shanbhag. “Basically, you’re trying to decode and get through the system to find whatever they’re asking you for.”

“Once you find those things, you have to rectify them in a manner that doesn’t disrupt the running of the rest of the image,” explained team member Zack Servello. “If I find a file that’s out of place, I have to remove that file without causing a cascade of other things getting damaged in the process.”

Since its founding, the Nease team has grown from a handful of students to the point where it now consists of 18 students in three competition teams drawing from the individual strengths of the members.

One of the most important elements in these competitions is a reliable internet connection. But blockers at the school interfered with the students’ ability to participate, so they had to set up shop in private homes.

“Right now, we do it at my house,” said Macayla. “We have one team in our dining room, one team in one living room and one team in the other. We all just try to stay out of each other’s way.”

Still, internet integrity remains a challenge.

“We have about six computers on at the same time, and we’re all on our phones looking stuff up, so the internet has definitely been an issue,” Macayla said. “Nobody else can be on the computer or on the phone or anything like that.”

That all changed after Raghu Misra, co-owner of the link, learned of the team’s needs. The link, located at 425 Town Plaza Ave. in Nocatee, is an award-winning smart building at the forefront of embracing technology for smart work spaces, event spaces and experiences. Approached about the possibility of hosting a fundraiser, Misra offered the team space at the link – with its superior internet capabilities – for competitions.

For some of the students the program may actually be the doorway to a career.

Team member Jacob Desrosiers plans on going into information technology, most likely with an emphasis on cybersecurity. Macayla, who said she knew nothing about CyberPatriot before getting involved, now hopes to go to the Air Force Academy to study cybersecurity.

The next competition will be in September. Over the summer, the Nease NJROTC CyberPatriot team will be training, taking part in exhibition rounds and growing the program. Macayla said she would like to get more girls involved.

If the team continues to grow, it may claim the kind of accolades being won by other members of the NJROTC program.

“Just like our drill team is amazing or known for winning drill all the time, I see the CyberPatriot team kind of using the same model, where you build a strong foundation and then the cadets are training the new cadets coming in,” said Chief Warrant Officer Michael Donato, senior naval science instructor for Nease NJROTC. “Once you have that strong foundation, it just breeds success every year, and they take it to the next level every year.”

“We really want to thank the parents and the instructors, because they give us so much support, and we really couldn’t do anything without them,” said Macayla. “We couldn’t even have competitions. They help us so much, especially Mr. Scruggs.”

“We also want to thank the people at the link for giving us the opportunity to expand into this space,” said Zack. “We’re very appreciative that they’ve been so welcoming to us and been so helpful with everything we need.”

To learn more about Nease NJROTC, go to