Columbus North was set to play Avon in the 2013 Evansville Semistate in a battle of two boys soccer teams ranked in the top five in the country, and University of Southern Indiana coach Mat Santoro thought he’d check out some of the talent on the field.

But while Santoro went with the intention of looking at a couple of other players, he found a hidden gem in North’s Riley Belding. The Bull Dogs, who had won a state title the previous year, lost to Avon 3-2, but Belding had a goal and an assist and made a big impression on Santoro.

“We were aware of their incredible year their junior year, and we knew what kind of team they had,” Santoro said. “We went to that game with Avon, and there were actually a couple other people in that game that we had more of an intention to look at. But we had to find out who that No. 2 was. For us, it was a win because we were on to Riley at that point.”

Belding wanted to play soccer at the highest level possible. But he knew he probably wasn’t good enough for national powerhouse Indiana University, a few other in-state Division I schools did not have men’s soccer programs and he thought he was better than a Division III player.

So Belding found a good fit in USI, which plays in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, one of the top Division II men’s soccer conferences in the country.

“Coach Santoro reached out to me a couple days after that semistate game, and we set up a date for me to come and visit,” Belding said. “I had a chance to meet some of the players. After that visit, I was really impressed with the school, really impressed with the coach, and I pretty much knew right away that’s where I wanted to go.”

Belding, who is entering his senior year, has been a starting midfielder since his freshman season. He has played mostly left mid and occasionally some center mid and led all USI field players in minutes played last season.

After being on a partial scholarship his freshman year, Belding earned a much larger scholarship.

“He’s been amazing,” Santoro said. “He just has continued to do everything right, and we’ve tried to reward him for what a great student-athlete he’s been here.”

Santoro said Belding has been one of the top midfielders in the GLVC, and that if the Eagles do well enough this year, he should be an All-American candidate. Santoro called Belding an All-American level player.

Although he doesn’t have official captains, Santoro has had Belding on his leadership committee last year and this year.

“He’s absolutely a leader,” Santoro said. “He has great character. He’s a great person. His teammates love him. He never takes a practice or a game or a minute off. There’s never a time when Riley Belding is lazy or flat or disengaged. He’s very easy for a coach to point to and say, ‘Do what he does.'”

Last fall, USI had its best season since Belding has been there. The Eagles ended the year 13-4-4 and ranked in the top 20 in the country, finished third in the GLVC and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II Tournament.

With only one starter gone from that team, USI hopes to make a deeper run this season.

“We didn’t lose a whole lot of pieces,” Belding said. “We’re going to have the core back at it again this year. We want to win some championships this year. (Making) All-Conference would be nice, but I’m more focused on winning and going far as a team.”

A business marketing major, Belding is on track to graduate next May. He interned with Clear Defense pest control company in Greensboro, N.C., this summer, and heads back to USI tonight to start practice on Thursday.

Belding said he has entertained thoughts of trying to play professionally if he has the opportunity.

“Obviously, it’s going to be tough to leave the game after playing for so long,” Belding said.

But first, he is focused on having a big senior season and helping lead the Eagles back to a GLVC title and a deep NCAA Tournament run. They open the season Aug. 31 against Kentucky Wesleyan.

Belding has no regrets about his decision to go to USI.

“Looking back, I definitely wouldn’t change a thing,” Belding said. “It’s been cool to be a part of this program. Every year, we’ve gotten better, and now, we’re making NCAA Tournament runs and chasing championships.”

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.