WYLIE, Texas -- Something in the water here must breed those mystical nicknames for Texas high school football programs, their very mention evoking screams and tears from players and fans, as if set off subliminally.
"Friday Night Lights" exposed the nation to West Texas' Odessa Permian and its "Mojo." In East Texas, at John Tyler High School, there's "Cujo," linked to the Lions instead of any ferocious dog.
And just northeast of Dallas, in eastern Collin County, there are the Wylie Pirates and their "AHMO." That's printed on their football jerseys, and has even been trademarked. T-shirts read: "AHMO … it's a Wylie thing."
It all began in 1977, when Wylie was a much smaller place, adopted by head coach Jerry Shaffer during the run to the Class 2A title from a joke he heard on TV. The punch line loosely translated as " … AHMO kick yo' butt."
Some people instead interpret it as an acronym for "Annihilate, Humiliate, Mutilate, Obliterate." A less graphic guess is "Agile, Hostile, Mobile Offense."
Wrong on all counts, says current Wylie coach Bill Howard, almost amused when asked to provide definitive etymology.
"You'd be surprised how many people ask me that question," Howard said. "The letters don't mean anything. It doesn't mean we're going to kick your butt. It's our battle cry. When our kids hear it, it means, 'Here we come. You're going to have to stop us.'"
With equal parts AHMO and ammo, Wylie has reached the Class 5A Division II semifinals after finishing third in District 8-5A. The Pirates (12-2) will try for their fifth consecutive win of this postseason, which would set a school record, when they face Copperas Cove (13-1) in Waco on Saturday night.
The Pirates aren't loaded with blue-chip talent. Quarterback Jerod Monk has gotten more major college attention as the playoffs have continued, and he said his list now includes Baylor, TCU and Kansas State. Junior H-back Noah Cheshier is a year away from becoming a highly sought recruit. Wylie mostly boasts a balanced, versatile offense and an aggressive defense led by a 5-foot-11 nose guard who wears No. 8.
"We put our defensive linemen in the smallest, tightest jerseys that we can find," Howard said. So senior Nikita Whitlock has been wearing No. 8 since he was a sophomore.
"It's supposed to keep me from getting held," Whitlock said, "but it's not working."
Fittingly, Wylie is among the smallest high schools in the district with an enrollment of about 2,800. Four of its six district opponents are home to more than 4,000 students.
"I think it says a lot about our kids and our community," Howard said. "Our kids believe we're tougher and more physical than other people and maybe not as talented. We kind of use the saying around here, 'The team that hits the hardest and hits the longest is going to win'."
Before Howard became Wylie's head coach preceding the 2006 season, he served as assistant head coach to Mark Ball for nine years. The staff survived a rugged start -- 26 losses in the first three seasons -- before developing into a 4A power. Wylie moved up to 5A in '06, and Ball stepped aside to become athletic director.
Howard was eager to take over and see how Wylie would compete with the big schools in one of Texas' most competitive districts.
"When you get out of this district in the playoffs, you have a good chance of going quite a ways," Howard said. (District winner Allen is a Division I semifinalist despite losing its starting quarterback two weeks ago; runner-up Plano was eliminated by defending Division I champion Euless Trinity on a last-minute touchdown.)
"The downside is you're going to get a lot of lumps and bruises. If you get any major injuries, you're going to be staying home."
Wylie had to travel to Plano and Allen this season, accounting for its two defeats. Against Plano, the Pirates allowed a touchdown with 1:36 to play and lost by seven. They lost to Allen's Eagles by three.
"The loss to Plano set us back," Howard said. "We read about how great Plano was, and sometimes 17-year-old boys have a preconception. After the game, I think we were very disappointed and didn't play very well for a couple weeks after that.
"The Allen game, though it was for the district title, both were already in the playoffs and that took a little luster off the game. At the end of the game, we immediately just wrote it off. We didn't really think about it. We didn't really go back and watch the film on it."
Whitlock said the two losses "taught us that you've got to give all or nothing or you're going to lose. Now we know we've got to play 48 minutes."
Last weekend, Wylie defeated Cedar Hill 31-21 with junior running back Nick Knott scoring three touchdowns. He had scoring runs of 80 and 39 yards, but the touchdown catch covering 12 yards in the fourth quarter might have been the most impressive.
Knott, all of 5-10 and 175 pounds, was about five yards from the end zone near the left sideline and facing two Cedar Hill defenders when he took to the air. His one-man flight -- banging off one defender and over the other -- ended with a landing in the end zone to provide Wylie with a 10-point cushion with 7:55 to play.
"I knew they didn't cover the running back very well," Monk said. "If the corner leaves, then I'm going to throw it to him. I just got the ball to Nick and let him do his thing."
Knott said his launch was inspired by a pregame team talk about sacrifices:
"What you're going to do for your team," said Knott, brother of Wake Forest freshman receiver Chris Givens. "So I just went out there to do what I had to do."
And he said he wasn't afraid of losing his luggage in mid-flight.
"If you play scared, you're not going to win," Knott said.
Said Howard: "Knowing Nick, I don't think he'd have gone airborne unless he thought that's what he had to do.
"Our kids at Wylie really don't worry about what's going to happen. They just try to make things happen."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.