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Carrissa Hlywa fancies herself as just another hockey player. 

She wears the same equipment and has the same routines, tying one skate before the other. She tapes her stick before every game, a regular part of preparation for a sport that requires attention to every detail. And when it's time to play, she plays. 

What's dissimilar is that Hlywa is a girl playing in a boys league, the lone female member of the Auburn hockey team, and the first female to play with the Maroons since the early 2000s. 

Her situation is unique, but Hlywa is enjoying the ride so far. 

This isn't the first time Hlywa, a junior at Auburn, has suited up with the boys — after her introduction to hockey as a 3-year-old, Hlywa played on boys youth programs through Pee Wees (fourth grade) until deciding to transfer to various girls programs, which she's played on ever since.

In 2016, Hlywa was a member of the Syracuse Nationals 14-and-under team that won the New York State Amateur Hockey Association Tier I 14-U championship and advanced to the national tournament in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year, in a search for better competition and "something new," Hlywa elected to play for the Niagara Jr. Purple Eagles in Buffalo, a 19-and-under team.

Because of Niagara's schedule — the season is split, running from August until the start of high school season in November, then reconvening for the state tournament in March — Hlywa needed a team to play for during the break.

Auburn does not have a girls team, so Hlywa explored playing for programs in Skaneateles and Ithaca, but was denied by both. She was accepted by Oswego to play on the Buccaneers' girls team, but would've needed to leave school early every day to make the 3 p.m. practices.

Seemingly out of girls hockey options, Hlywa turned to the Auburn boys team. Unsure of what to expect, in tryouts Hlywa was placed on a line with Maroons top scorer Johnny Malandruccolo and her brother Ty, a freshman. Low expectations for playing time quickly flipped.

"I thought, 'Oh, maybe I'll actually play,'" Hlywa said. "I was definitely not expecting to play because there's a bunch of good talent on this team and I'm a girl. I just had to work hard to get my spot."

Hlywa has maintained a position on Auburn's top line for most of the season after recording a pair of assists in her debut in a 7-2 win over Liverpool. On Friday against Liverpool, she scored her first career goal. 

Entering the season with an open mind, Hlywa quickly learned she'd have to adjust her game with the boys. Physical contact is allowed in girls hockey but full bodychecking is not.

Hlywa says "it's definitely apparent" that some opposing players are reluctant to hit her, but she's still received her fair share of open-ice collisions. She welcomes the body contact if it comes, explaining that it makes her feel like just another player on the ice.

"No one wants to be the kid that hits the girl. I mean, 'Good for you, you wrecked a girl,'" Hlywa said. "I like when the kids don't back off. I got wrecked against Clinton, but it just shows that I'm part of the game and I'm another player."

Observing from the bench, Auburn coach Mike Lowe has seen Hlywa hold her own despite the switch to more liberal bodychecking rules.

"She's very strong, so it's not like the physicality bothers her at all," Lowe said. "She's had some good hits during the games and has popped right back up, no problems.

"In the weight room she fits right in. We work out quite a bit and she's strong. I don't know if she was concerned at all about the contact coming into the season, but she doesn't play like it bothers her."

For someone who has aspirations of playing college hockey, Hlywa believes her experience playing with the boys has improved her as a player, and she's noticed the difference when she's returned to her girls team.

"On my girls team I'm a goal scorer, but on the boys I'm just trying to do the little things like not cough the puck up and not get wrecked," Hlywa said. "We recently went to a tournament after Christmas in Boston (with the Niagara Jr. Purple Eagles) and I felt like I was more aware of what was going on and I read the game better. Say I got the puck along the boards, I'd look up and ... 'Wait, I can't be hit,' so I'd take a couple more strides."

As a rookie, one of Hlywa's pre-game jobs is stacking the pucks on the bench to be used during warm-ups. Then she'll join the rest of the team for off-ice stretching and stickhandling before heading to the dressing room to gather her gear.

Hlywa doesn't dress with the rest of the team, instead having a locker room to herself. She admits missing out on some of the camaraderie, but her status on the team helps negate some of that.

"I feel I do miss the funny conversations or some things like that, but we make up for it on the ice," Hlywa said. "I think it helps that I play and I'm an aspect of the team. I feel like if I didn't dress they wouldn't engage me in conversations as much as with me actually playing. I do miss out a little bit but it's fine."

Understanding personal conversations that high school-aged boys sometimes take part in, Lowe says that the players have been very respectful of having a female on the team.

"We've talked about it a little bit but it hasn't been much of a concern because the guys on the team have been very respectful. There hasn't been any issues that I'm aware of," Lowe said. "She fits in well off the ice and on the ice. Maybe having (Ty) on the team ... she knows a lot of these guys for a long time through her brother and through playing hockey."

Having Ty on the team has not only helped Hlywa fit in, but she believes it's created a better bond between the two.

"It's cool to actually play with him and be on a line with him," Hlywa said. "People just guessed I was good because I travel and I miss school for hockey, but he did the same. I think he definitely surprised the Auburn fans. It's cool for my parents because they get to be at one place and watch us both.

"At first he was the only kid I'd talk to so it was good to have him, and now he's just another teammate."

The same could be said for Hlywa. Despite the ponytail flowing out from the back of her helmet, she's just another skater out there.

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Sports writer Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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