This is a time of heightened expectations and sometimes broken hearts for senior high school football players with college aspirations.

The recruiting period has heated up, with the National Letter of Intent day of Feb. 2 not that far away.

Earning a football scholarship is an exhilarating experience, just as being snubbed by schools is deflating.

Yet not all players who are offered pan out, and, conversely, those who received scant attention have often enjoyed exemplary careers.

Two of the players in the latter category are at Villanova: Matt Szczur, of Lower Cape May, and Ben Ijalana, of Rancocas Valley.

It would be an understatement to suggest that both players were lightly regarded coming out of high school.

The total number of scholarship offers both had was a whopping two.

That's right, one each, with Villanova being the only suitor.

Seems as if things have turned out pretty well for both of them.

Szczur was an all-American receiver last year as Villanova won the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title.

Hampered by a high-ankle sprain this season, Szczur rushed for three touchdowns, had another receiving, and threw a touchdown pass in last week's 42-24, quarterfinal victory over Appalachian State.

The Wildcats will visit Eastern Washington on Friday for a national semifinal. Szczur, who signed with the Chicago Cubs after being drafted in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball draft, is considered a potential NFL prospect.

Ijalana is even more of an NFL prospect. This season, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive tackle was named an FCS all-American by the American Football Coaches Association.

He has made 52 career starts and has been invited to play in this year's Senior Bowl.

One offer for each?

It's hard to believe.

"I don't have a clue why only one offer," Szczur said. "I went to combines and junior days and ran awesome times but never got any offers other than Villanova."

The Villanova staff certainly noticed those awesome times.

"We had him at our camp, and he was so fast," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "He said he wanted to play both sports, and we told him he could because we thought he'd be a great addition to the football team."

Szczur says his desire to be a two-sport college athlete might have scared away some schools. Plus, he played at Lower Cape May, which went 7-3 during his senior year but is not a school frequently visited by recruiters.

"That could have been part of it," he said.

As for Ijalana, he played for a struggling Rancocas Valley program that went 3-7 in his junior year and 1-9 in his senior season.

Villanova offered him a scholarship in the summer before his senior year.

"He came to our one-day camp, and our line coach, Mark Ferrante, said: 'You should see this kid, he has great feet and is going to be huge, is a wrestler, has great balance, and he has the best feet of any recruit I've ever seen,' " Talley said.

"He is an academic kid, so we offered him a scholarship and he accepted the next day."

Now the NFL beckons.

"The NFL people feel he will be a second- or third-round pick," Talley said.

That was the furthest thing from Ijalana's mind when he accepted his scholarship to Villanova.

"I was happy to be going to school for free," he said. "I didn't imagine 52 starts later I would be where I am."

Instead of feeling slighted that more schools didn't contact him, Ijalana was grateful for the chance he received, and he has certainly made the most of it.

"It's good to show you can survive and kind of compete, and I jumped in the strength and conditioning program we had at Villanova," Ijalana said. "This place has been awesome for me."

The same has been the case with Szczur.

"All of the guys in our class didn't care how many offers we had in high school," he said. "Once we got here, it was all about being part of Villanova, helping the program win."

That has certainly happened.

What is often forgotten about recruiting players is that some peak in high school while others continue to show gradual - or, in the case of Szczur and Ijalana - stunning improvement.

So any recruit who is down in the dumps about not receiving many offers can look at these two Villanova players as inspiration. A recruit should realize that it is not how many offers he receives, but what he does with the chance he is given that is always the defining measure.

Marc Narducci: Jersey Fresh

Former South Jersey players on the roster for Villanova, which will play in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals Friday night at Eastern Washington.

Player   Yr.   Pos.   High school   

Donald Davis   Soph.   DL   Glassboro

Ben Ijalana   Sr.   OL   Rancocas Valley

Craig James   Fr.   DB   Oakcrest

Antoine Lewis   Fr.   DL   Mainland

Eric Loper   Soph.   DB   Timber Creek

Austin Medley   Fr.   RB   Delsea

Kenny Miles   Soph.   WR   Buena

Corey Reeder   Fr.   WR   Pemberton

Mikey Reynolds   Jr.   WR   Moorestown

Matt Szczur   Sr.   WR   Lower Cape May

Dustin Thomas   Fr.   QB   St. Augustine

Norman White   Jr.   WR   St. Joseph's

- Marc Narducci
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Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225

or mnarducci@phillynews.com.