WAHIAWA, Hawaii -- Leilehua High School returned to the national CyberPatriot Finals after finishing as the top Army JROTC qualifier in the nation.

The "Mighty Mules" was be one of 14 finalists in the All-Service Division at CyberPatriot V, the premier national high school cyber defense competition held in Washington, D.C., March 14-15.

The honor is even more special for the Leilehua JROTC team, as it won the Army Service Division Championship at last year's national meet.

"It feels great to be going back because this year was much more challenging. There were more teams entered, and we knew we had to work harder," said retired Lt. Col. Nick Spiridigliozzi, coach and senior JROTC Army instructor.

"There's a certain amount of pressure and expectation, but it's good pressure," he continued. "It's actually been positive and given us a goal to get to that level again."

Adding to that pressure was the need to rebuild the Mighty Mules from the ground up after losing every member of last year's team (two students graduated, while another PCS'd).

"That's just part of the dynamics, here, being located so close to an Army installation, but once we get a good group of people, we have a great team," Spiridigliozzi said.

This year's CyberPatriot team consists of Army Hawaii family members:

•Sharon Thepsenavong, stepdaughter of Spc. Hans Brockmann, 536th Maintenance Company, 524th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 45th Sust. Brigade, 8th Theater Sust. Command;

•Michael Grajales, son of Staff Sgt. Jesus Grajales, 599th Transportation Bde.; and

•David Williams, son of Sgt. David Williams, 552nd Military Police Co., 728th MP Bn., 8th MP Bde., 8th TSC.

Other team members are Kawika Lavarias (civilian) and Seth Allen (son of chiefs with the U.S. Navy). Retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Mike Herr is serving as team mentor.

"He's 'Mr. Inside,'" Spiridigliozzi said. "He's the guy who instructs the cadets and trains them."

In addition, Army instructors, retired Master Sgts. Ramon Ramos and Bryan Wyatt, help, as needed, with weekly practices leading up to next month's competition.

This year's two-track competition includes public, private and home schools registered in the Open Division, while JROTC units, Naval Sea Cadet Corps and Civil Air Patrol squadrons fill the All-Service Division.

In all, more than 1,200 teams registered to participate, representing all 50 states, Canada and U.S. Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Europe and the Pacific.

"Each year this competition draws in very determined students who demonstrate great energy, motivation and excitement in their involvement with CyberPatriot," said Bernie Skoch, CyberPatriot commissioner. "We have to congratulate all the students for their hard work, and we look forward to the great amount of enthusiasm they will bring with them to the National Finals Competition in March."

The All-Service Division began with 806 teams. Now, the final 14 will travel to the CyberPatriot National Finals Competition at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center, in National Harbor, Md., where they will compete face to face and defend virtual networks from a professional aggressor team.

The Open Division also sends 12 teams to the competition.

"Air Force Association (creator of CyberPatriot) bills the event as a part of national defense, which makes sense to me," Spiridigliozzi said. "Cyber security and keeping our information safe from online threats, like hackers, is so much a part of our national defense.

"But," he added, "CyberPatriot's No. 1 goal is to excite children about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. And, the part I would like to stress is, you don't need to be a cyber geek to be part of the team. We look for someone who's excited about learning, can stay motivated and will do their best."

The top team from each division will be announced at an awards banquet to conclude the competition.

(Editor's note: Information used from a Hawaii State Department of Education news release.)