VANCLEAVE -- If you ask third-year Vancleave boys basketball coach Robert Johnson and his players to tell you the last time the Bulldogs made the playoffs, you'll generally get the same answer.
It's either "I don't know" or, as Johnson put it, "That is a question I can't answer."
The correct response is 2008-09.
With a 13-4 record and a 2-2 mark in Region 8-4A, the Bulldogs have a shot to end that six-year drought. The team started the season with an 8-0 mark, including a 54-49 overtime victory at Bay High on Dec. 8.
Vancleave's postseason fate is far from determined, but it has made a major step forward in Johnson's third year on the job.
"It's been a while since we made the playoffs and had a winning record (five years)," Johnson said. "We're on the verge now of clinching a winning record at the end of the season.
"When we beat Bay High, that's the first time in 20 years Vancleave has beaten Bay High on any level, plus it was there. I'm not saying it's going to happen again, but it's happened one time this season. That's something the kids can take with them the rest of their lives."
Vancleave will host Bay High (10-5, 2-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a game crucial to seeding in the region tournament for both squads.
If Vancleave wins three more games this season, it will surpass the win total of the previous four years combined (15).
In Johnson's first two seasons, Vancleave won a total of eight games.
Year three has proven a charmed season for the Bulldogs. "It took a while for us to get into (Johnson's) system and how he wants it," junior point guard Trevor Davis said. "Once we figured it out, we started clicking and playing pretty well."
That system involves plenty of hard work and intense practices with Johnson constantly talking, shouting instructions.
"He's very demanding with everything we do," Davis said. "We push tempo and there's never a down time in practice. He's just on always on our butts if we're lacking effort. He's always going to help us and push us to work hard."
Johnson saw the tide begin to turn for his program over the summer.
"We played a team in the summer that beat us by 50 points last season, but beat us by three points this summer," Johnson said. "They had their entire team. If they beat us by 50 last season and beat us by three now, that's a difference."
Johnson, who coached at Class 1A Noxapater previously, knew he had a rebuilding project on his hands when he first arrived at Vancleave prior to the 2013-14 season. It's been a youth movement in all three of his seasons with freshmen and sophomores often logging heavy minutes.
"I started out (the first season) with seven seniors and finished the season with one," Johnson said. "This is my third season at the high school and I'm working on my third senior, and this is a 4A program. We've played a couple of 1A schools that have five or six seniors."
The two Vancleave seniors this year are guard Mark Robertson, who is out with an injury, and guard Nic Brewer, who ranks second on the team in scoring at 11.9 a game.
Davis is the Bulldogs' top scorer with 13.1 points a contest.
After sitting out the majority of last year with a broken arm, Brewer has enjoyed experiencing a winning season.
"I've been through the rough times," Brewer said. "Now we've got 13 wins under our belt. It makes it an entertaining season."
Sophomore Xavier Bass and junior Kylan Johnson have both been important players in the frontcourt while junior Gage Short and sophomore Jonathan Knight have pitched in significant minutes. "We're going to work hard every day, every night," Johnson said. "We're going to run up against teams that are better than us, have better athletes and are more skilled. But we're going to play hard and do the little things we need to do. That's how we made it to the position we're in now. We kept playing hard."