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Entering last season, Chantilly coach Jim Smith thought his team would be lucky to win four or five games. It was a pretty meager expectation from a coach with more than 400 wins to his name, including 12 seasons in which his team finished with 18 or more victories. With his top eight players lost to graduation and a starting lineup featuring five fresh faces, Smith planned to take his lumps during the 2011-12 season before perhaps aiming for a winning season in 2012-13.

As 2012 comes to a close, Smith finds himself guiding a team performing well ahead of the curve. The Chargers finished the 2011-12 regular season with a 10-10 record, and they have nearly matched that win total in three weeks’ time this season. Perched atop the Concorde District with an 8-0 record, Chantilly has positioned itself nicely heading into next month’s slate of district competition.

“Initially we were definitely going to be under the radar because of last year,” said Chantilly senior forward Brian Sydnor, who put up a game-high 19 points in Tuesday’s 51-38 win against McLean. “Coming off a bad season, you’re not really expected to come out and be a top team, so I think it’s good that we’re coming up from behind, coming up as the underdogs. We just come out and play our game.”

Standing as the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-4, Sydnor plays a perimeter-oriented game that relies on outside shooting as much as dribble drives to the basket. His style is emblematic of a guard-heavy squad that compensates for its lack of size with a slash-and-cut offense and a defense that applies steady pressure in the backcourt. As many of his teams have done during his 21-year tenure, Smith’s players have made up for a relative lack of scoring firepower with sound team defense, forcing numerous turnovers and limiting opponents to 42 points per game so far this year.

“The kids play really, really hard,” said Smith, whose team has not given up more than 47 points in a game this season. “We put a lot of pressure on the ball. Obviously we don’t have great size, so we try to make up for that by being able to pressure people and getting into passing lanes and turning people over. We give teams some different looks defensively, which sometimes causes people some problems. But the biggest thing is our kids have a motor and play extremely hard.”

Chantilly needs Sydnor’s scoring prowess to succeed, but they have plenty of capable role players ready to fill the gaps behind him. Sophomore guards Tyler Femi, Dylan Madawo and junior guard DeAndre Harris are reliable ball-handlers who can get to the basket and score when called upon. Senior forwards Trey Coates and Sean Huelskamp mirror Sydnor in their ability to use their size both under the basket and on the perimeter.

The team’s fast-paced style of play makes team depth an imperative, since going all-out on both ends of the floor makes it nearly impossible for anyone to go a full 32 minutes. Smith isn’t afraid to empty his bench when he needs to, as seen when he started the second quarter against McLean on Tuesday with five players off the bench.

“We’re still young this year, and obviously we make some young mistakes,” Smith said. “But what I love about this team is the energy they play with, the enthusiasm. And also this is a nice group that has a lot of interchangeable parts. We play 10 to 12 guys pretty much every single night. Obviously Brian’s a very, very good scorer, but we really don’t have much drop-off in a lot of our guys.”

With district play beginning Jan. 4 against defending region champion Westfield (4-3), Chantilly hopes to use the experience of losing their final three games last season as fuel to make a statement in the ever-competitive Concorde. As long as they stay ahead of the curve, the Chargers can take aim at their first district title since 2009.

“I think we’re all just really motivated,” Sydnor said. “We’re really energetic. I just think we have great chemistry. We all play really well together.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com