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When the start of the regular season creeps closer, the Liberty District doesn’t have a habit of dreading the Fairfax boys basketball team. Even in the early stages of a 2011-12 season that would see Fairfax march all the way to the regional semifinals, coaches and players from opposing teams weren’t looking at the Rebels as potential title contenders. After all, they had a brand new, 20-something head coach whose team got off to a rocky 2-5 start.

No one can afford to ignore Fairfax this year. The Rebels return most of the offensive firepower that catapulted them to four playoff wins last season, and they are determined to carry their postseason momentum into this winter’s campaign. When they were asked last week about their opinions of other teams, all eight Liberty District coaches put Fairfax at or near the top of their list.

“The main thing with us this year is going to be dealing with the burden of playing with expectations,” said Mike Barbee, a former W.T. Woodson star entering his second year at the Fairfax helm. “Last year we were under the radar the whole season. People didn’t get up to play Fairfax because of our record, whereas this year people are going to expect us to win. Everybody’s going to be gunning for us in the district. We’re not going to be anyone’s easy night.”

Last year’s 16-12 record disguised a strong late-season run that saw the Rebels reel off 12 wins in their last 17 games. They displayed plenty of resolve during a playoff run that featured three overtime contests and an upset against perennial district powerhouse Langley, which fell to Fairfax, 56-49, in the Liberty District semifinals. The fourth-seeded Rebels rallied from an 11-0 deficit to take McLean into double overtime in the tournament final before falling, 60-57.

That playoff run wouldn’t have transpired without the hot hand of Zack Burnett, who tallied a game-high 24 points in the loss to McLean before putting up 20 in a first-round regional upset against W.T. Woodson. The Rebels’ lights-out shooter knocked down 66 three-pointers en route to a team-high 18.5 points per game and first-team all-district honors last year.

Entering his senior season, Burnett has been working to expand his game so that he can set the bar higher.

“I think I had a pretty good year last year, but I’m not looking to stop improving,” Burnett said. “Over the offseason I’ve been working more on my agility and strength so that I can get to the basket easily and finish near the rim instead of just mainly being a three-point shooter.”

Burnett is part of a small lineup that returns its six best guards while losing its top three post players to graduation. No one on the team this season stands taller than six-foot-three, a predicament that has some of the squad’s bigger guards learning how to play in the post this year. Senior Daniel Frank -- who was named to the Liberty District’s All-Defensive team last season playing at three-guard -- will take his gritty style of play to the starting center position this year, despite being just 6-foot-2.

“We have to rebound better as a whole team because we don’t have as much size,” senior guard John Robic said.

An Honorable Mention All-District performer last season, Robic was Fairfax’s number two scoring threat last year, averaging 10 points and three assists per game. Robic, who has always thrived on attacking the basket, worked hard in the offseason to improve his jump shot, which should make him a more versatile scorer this winter.

“Last year Zack was sort of option one and option two,” Barbee said. “I really see those two being truly 1A and 1B this year. Teams will have to pick their poison of who they’re going to stop because I think they’re both equally talented scorers.”

With Burnett and Robic setting the tone, the Rebels hope to ride their fast-paced style of play to a district title, something that’s eluded Fairfax since 2002.

“We’d definitely like to get some hardware this year,” Barbee said. “That’s the one thing we left short on last year, and even beyond that, we’d like to stake out a tradition of being a contender from here on out. This is not going to be a short term thing.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com