July 19, 2023

Getting Out of Her Comfort Zone by Going to Columbia, PDS Grad Surace Became Starter for Lions Women’s Lax

LION-HEARTED: Ali Surace marks a foe this spring in her debut season for the Columbia University women’s lacrosse team. Surace, a former Princeton Day School soccer and lax standout, emerged as a key defender for Columbia. Playing in all 15 games for the Lions, starting nine, Surace picked up seven ground balls and had six caused turnovers. (Photo provided courtesy of Columbia Athletics)

By Bill Alden

Ali Surace knows Princeton University like the back of her hand, but when it came time to choose a college last year, she knew it was time to go elsewhere.

Surace, a Princeton Day School girls’ soccer and lacrosse standout, essentially grew up on the Princeton campus. Her dad, Bob, starred for the Tiger football team and had been the head coach at his alma mater since 2010 while her mother, Lisa, the Associate Head of School at PDS, is a Princeton alumna who played for the women’s soccer team.

“As I got older and grew up more, I realized that I love Princeton; but that I have already gone there almost,” said Surace.

“So for me to grow and get out of my comfort zone, I had to explore something else. When it came down to it, I felt I had to leave to really succeed in life.”

While Surace was initially focusing on Division III schools where she could potentially play both soccer and lacrosse, she ultimately decided to explore New York City and headed to Columbia University and play for its D-I women’s lax program.

“I didn’t really know at first if I wanted to be in the city; when I visited Columbia, it is basically like a closed college campus in the middle of a big city,” said Surace.

“You are standing there, you don’t even know you are in the city. The city is there and the city is so cool. It was definitely out of my comfort zone a little bit going to the city, but that has probably been the best decision in my life. I never want to leave; I am still there this summer. It was a change but honestly, it was a really easy transition. It is a great place, I love it, it is really the perfect fit for me.”

On the the field this spring, the 5’8 Surace developed a comfort level, playing in all 15 games and starting nine as she became a stalwart on the Lion back line.

“The high school level and the college level is definitely a big transition, just in terms of the level of physicality,” said Surace.

“It is so different, the speed of play; how fast they think and how fast they play was a big transition. But when you are playing every day, you transition pretty fast to it. It was a little challenging at first but my teammates are great and it was really easy to grow in that environment.”

Surace’s transition was eased by her bond with Columbia head coach Anne Murray, a former Princeton women’s lax standout and assistant coach.

“It is funny — when she coached at Princeton, she coached me in the little kid camps,” said Surace of Murray.

“I fully remember her from then too because her energy was so great and it is still so great. She is hard to forget.”

Early on in fall ball, Surace decided that bringing energy to the defensive end would be the way she could make the biggest impact for the Lions.

“The first week, I was going between midfield and defense and then I had a meeting with the coaches,” said Surace.

“I felt like I would do really well on defense; they felt like that was really my strong suit. From there on it was strictly defense, which has been really cool.”

Surace enjoyed a cool experience in her college debut as Columbia overcame an 11-9 deficit to edge Lafayette 15-12 in the season opener on February 18.

“Being on a field in a college game was nerve-wracking and exciting,” said Surace.

“That was a really exciting game too because we were down in the last couple of minutes and then we came back and won. I think for us it was ‘we can do this’ — be down and be motivated to turn the game around.”

Getting her first college start as the Lions hosted Cornell on March 11 was a breakthrough moment for Surace.

“That was really exciting,” said Surace. “I was just so happy to have that opportunity. I worked really hard for it. I was ready for sure.”

When Columbia played in Princeton at the Class of 1952 Stadium on April 8, Surace was ready for a big day.

“I was looking forward to that game since I committed,” said Surace, who picked up a ground ball and had a caused turnover in a 19-4 loss to the Tigers.

“It was fun too because so many friends and old teammates were there. It was so cute. I have practiced on that field a thousand times, so to be able to go back and play on it was great.”

Committing herself to get better, Surace made a lot of progress this spring.

“It was just becoming more confident,” said Surace. “My coaches believed in me, my other defenders believed in me. It was believing in myself that I am a starter and leader on this team and having a more vocal and physical role. I got so much stronger throughout the year. In high school, all of the things that I got called on for being physical I was able to do in college.”

Surace displayed that confidence in the season finale against Yale, scooping up two ground balls and getting a caused turnover in a 19-5 defeat to the Bulldogs.

“Our last game against Yale was my best game of the season; it was just fun that was the last game,” said Surace, who ended up with seven ground balls and six caused turnovers in the season.

“I just feel that I grew so much throughout the year and got so much better. For the last game to be the culmination of the season was great just in terms of being aggressive, stepping out on the ground balls. I think another big transition from high school to college was I went in and my 1-versus-1 defense was good. But with things like knowing when to slide, my game sense really hadn’t developed. By the end of it, that was really strong. As a defensive unit, we were moving much better together so that helps.”

Although the Lions went 3-12 overall and 0-7 Ivy League this spring, Surace believes the program is moving in the right direction.

“As a team, we talk about it all of the time — how much potential we have and how we feel that we are so close,” said Surace.

“So many of our underclassmen were impact players on our team this year and even last year, they got so much experience. We are really optimistic about the future. We all need to continue to grow and I think the incoming class is going to be really strong.”

As Surace prepares for her sophomore campaign, she is looking to make a big impact on the back line and beyond for the Lions.

“I am definitely confident, excited and just ready to get better,” said Surace, who is doing a financial internship this summer in New York City and is living on campus and working out with the Columbia strength trainers.

“A big goal for me this next year is to be a leader to bring the incoming class with us and show them everything we have been trying to do. Now that I have the experience, it is just being a leader and bringing everyone along for the ride.”