Collin Johnson recognizes the glint in his opponents' eyes.

He used to see it in the mirror.

"We used to be the team that was trying to prove something," Johnson said. "Now teams are trying to prove something against us."

Not so long ago - say, all the way back in February - Timber Creek was one of those young, ambitious boys' basketball teams on the verge of prominence. The Chargers had that lean, hungry look.

Then it all changed as quickly as one of the team's fastbreaks: Timber Creek got hot in March and put together a remarkable run, winning the first South Jersey title in the short history of the program and advancing to the Group 3 state title game.

Goodbye, rocky climb.

Hello, mountaintop.

"We're not a sleeper anymore," said Johnson, a 6-foot-5 swingman and one of three returning starters. "People know that Timber Creek is here, and we're here to stay.

"But we know it's not going to be easy. We've got to work hard every night because every team is going to be gunning for us."

It's a measure of the growth of the program that the Chargers enter the season that starts tonight with turf to defend and a reputation on the line. They are No. 5 in The Inquirer's preseason Top 10.

That's what happens when a basketball program, as well as an entire athletic department, succeeds seemingly overnight. What once was one of those emerging schools with immature programs is now an established power with all manner of championship banners set to hang on the gymnasium wall.

In the space of two seasons in the first six months of 2008, Timber Creek won four South Jersey Group 3 titles in boys' sports: basketball, wrestling, track and baseball. Just like that, the Chargers were big-time players.

"This is what we wanted to establish," coach Tim Dunne said. "We wanted to make this known as a basketball school. Last year, for a young program, that was as good as you could ask for."

Getting to the top is one thing. Staying there is another.

The Chargers know it won't be easy, not in a division as well as a sectional group with the likes of Shawnee and Winslow Township.

Get this, too: After tonight's opener against rival Winslow Township, Timber Creek will play two of its next four games against the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in The Inquirer's preseason Top 10: Camden Catholic and Rancocas Valley, respectively.

And the Chargers will likely play those games without point guard Jameer Briggs, a returning starter who is expected to miss the first six to eight games of the season following arthroscopic knee surgery.

"This is the way it's supposed to be," said Dunne, who took over the team last season after a successful stint at Pennsauken. "This is what the kids wanted. They wanted to play at a higher level, to be known as one of those kinds of teams."

Along with Briggs and returning guard Montez Blair, Johnson was a key player for the Chargers last season. He averaged 11.5 points and 5.7 rebounds, and was known for his tough defense, versatility and hustle.

Johnson was clutch in the state tournament. He had 12 points and three blocks as Timber Creek beat Shawnee in the sectional semifinals, and 12 points and 11 rebounds as the Chargers beat Hammonton in the sectional finals.

In the state semifinals, Johnson amassed 17 points and five assists as Timber Creek routed the Central Jersey champion, Middletown South.

"It was such a great experience," Johnson said. "The one-and-done in the tournament, it's something everybody should experience."

Johnson scored in double figures in 11 consecutive games going into the state finals. But he was held without a point as Timber Creek lost the championship game to Scotch Plains at Rutgers University.

That night, Johnson made himself a promise.

"After the state championship game, I went home that night and sat down and thought about things," Johnson said. "I felt like I had let my teammates down. That hurt me.

"I said I was going to do everything that I could to make sure something like that never happened again."

Dunne said Johnson dedicated himself with renewed fervor to prepare for his senior season.

"He puts a lot on himself," Dunne said. "He always has been motivated, but he put in so much time as far as lifting weights, working hard, learning new things, improving his skills. He wants to be as good as he can be, but within a team standpoint."

A good student who hopes play basketball in college, Johnson plans to study to become an architect.

He's already helped the Chargers build something special. But he knows the trick now is dealing with those opponents who want to tear it down.

"We can't take a play off," Johnson said. "We've got to work hard every possession. We've got to box out, play defense, do everything the right way every single time because teams are going to be coming after us.

"Everybody wants to beat us now."

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.