Matt Stepan had a spring in his step, and I am pretty sure he winked at me as he walked out to make a pitching change.

We were competing in a Little League baseball game in the 9-10 age division at Father Sheehan Park. My team was down one run, but we were about to take the lead in the top of the last inning.

We had the bases loaded, nobody out and some good hitters coming up.

Stepan, though, had a bounce in his step because he knew he had an ace in the hole. He had Cayde Stajcar.

Before I get into the story, I need to back up for a little background. At this point in my career coaching my son’s Little League teams, I was about 0-12 against teams coached by Stepan, Montana Tech’s director of athletics, and none of those games were even close.

One time, when we were coaching the 7-8 division, we played in a blizzard on the South Field of the Missoula Avenue complex.

The snow was coming in sideways, and the windchill factor had to be in the single digits. It was so cold that two parents pulled their kids out of the game and took them home in the middle of an inning.

Stepan’s players, though, just kept walking around the bases. At one point, I pleaded with the young umpire to call strikes because I was on my last pitcher who could even come close to the plate, and he was running into the pitch-count limit.

If the umpire didn’t start calling strikes, I said, we would never get through the top of the inning and go home and thaw out.

A year or two later, I lost to one of Stepan’s teams when the temperature was nearly 100 degrees warmer.

As an assistant on the Northwest Little League 9-10 All-Star team, I watched in the baking Great Falls dugout as the Mile High All-Stars batted around and around and around.

It is not an exaggeration to say that we lost by 30 runs in both games. I swear Gunnar Reopelle batted against us five times in one inning.

That is why I was so excited to have a chance to take the lead against Stepan’s team in the last inning.

Like me, Jake Larson, one of my assistant coaches, immediately knew we were in trouble when Stajcar walked to the mound. In his best Lou Brown voice, Jake said, “Give me Vaughn,” a reference to Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn closing out the awful Yankees in the movie “Major League.”

Nine pitches and three strikeouts later, we were in the handshake line after another loss to Stepan’s team. Yes, Stajcar struck out three batters on just nine pitchers to end the game. It took him longer to warm up than it did to mow us down.

Stajcar was only 9 or 10 when he got the save that day, but I had already known he was a special player for years.

I knew that since the morning I first took my son to play in the Knights of Columbus Little Kids Hoops program.

Stajcar, with his long, flowing hair, was playing with kids his own age, probably 5 and 6. Bernie Boyle and his sons put on the temporary baskets which were only about 7 feet high, and that was way too easy for Stajcar. It was so easy for him that he did not miss a single shot in the time that I watched him.

He scored on layups and deep shots, and my son and I marveled at what we were watching.

“Dad,” Grady said. “That girl is really good.”

“That’s not a girl,” I said. “And that might be the best young athlete I have ever laid eyes on.”

The best part about watching Stajcar play that morning, though, was not his athletic ability. Rather, it was his beyond-his-years selflessness. 

His passing was even more impressive than his running and shooting, and he made sure every player on his team got a chance to score.

I have never seen a kid so young have such awareness, so I made sure to go out of my way to tell Cayde and his parents how impressed I was with him that day.

Of course, it was no surprise to learn that Luke Stajcar is Cayde’s dad. Luke was a stud in every sport he played in high school at Butte Central, but he was particularly good at baseball. In all my years covering American Legion baseball, he is the best Butte player I have seen.

He was teammates with Rob Johnson, and at the time I would have bet my house that, if one player from that team would have made it to the Big Leagues, it would be Stajcar.

Johnson, now a former Mariner, Padre, Cardinal and Met, would have taken my house.

Like his dad, Cayde Stajcar is a baseball phenom, but the younger Stajcar looks like he will be even better than his dad. At 13, he led Butte to a Senior Little League State title. At 14, he helped lead the Butte Miners to the Class A State and Northwest A Regional titles.

At 15, Cayde Stajcar started at shortstop for Butte High’s first baseball team. During the year, he proved to be one of the best players in the state, on offense and defense.

He also proved that he is one of the toughest players and one of the best teammates.

During the last game of the regular season, Stajcar threw the ball to first base and felt a sharp pain in his elbow. The trainers feared for the worst.

While he wore his right arm in a sling during the week, Stajcar still played for the Miners in the State tournament.

The first time he had to throw the ball to first, though, his arm hurt again. The coaches had to move him to first base, where he played with one healthy arm.

But he still played all out.

During Butte’s 6-5 loss to Florence-Carlton in extra innings on Thursday, Isaac Bates hit a hard shot toward the right side of the infield as teammate Brodie Hinsdale raced home from third.

Stajcar laid out to knock down the ball. Then, with an arm he knew might be headed to surgery, he threw the ball to home as hard as he could, trying to save Butte’s championship hopes.

Stajcar put his team above his agony.

Hinsdale was safe, and the Bulldogs lost. But it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. 

Stajcar competed through pain that had to be incredible the whole tournament, trying to help his teammates win.

It is a performance that, in my book, ranks right up with Alicia Wheeler taking a hard shot off the face, going to the hospital for a CT scan, and then pitching Butte Central to the Class A State title in Billings in 2000.

Bulldog coach Jim LeProwse called Stajcar’s effort the “most gutsy performance” by any player he has ever coached.

This week, Stajcar will learn the severity of the injury. He will know if he will be able to play Legion ball with some rest and physical therapy or if he will have to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Whatever news he gets, though, we know it will only be a temporary setback for the great Cayde Stajcar. 

He will be back, and his future will be as bright as ever.

His coaches will have a spring in their step and a wink in their eye for a long, long time.

— Bill Foley, whose coaches usually closed both eyes, can be reached at Follow him at Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.