Dean Peterson was about to wrestle for his second straight state championship and 77th consecutive high school victory in front of thousands of spectators at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Convention Hall.

For a moment, however, his thoughts were not on the crowd, not on his record, not on his opponent.

They were on God.

As he has done before every match in his life since age 4, Peterson knelt and prayed.

The St. John Vianney junior then went out and took a 1-0 decision over Brick Memorial’s Vincent Santaniello March 7 in the 120-pound finals of the NJSIAA State Wrestling Championships. That capped a 42-0 season for Peterson. Coupled with last year’s 35-0 mark, he is 77-0 in the past two years, with his last loss coming as a freshman in the 2018 state finals.

He has used that loss to fuel him ever since.

“It’s almost like refocusing my goals,” Peterson said, explaining that as a freshman, he had his sights on being a four-time champion. After that loss, “I was like, ‘OK, now you can only be a three-time champ.’ You just have to reset your goals and get back there.”

Throughout that journey, before each of the next 77 matches, he publicly displayed his love of God.

“That’s a tradition I’ve had since I started wrestling,” said Peterson, who attends St. Mary Parish in his hometown of Barnegat. “I say a prayer before I go out and wrestle every match. I thank him, and he gives me strength.”

Once the prayer is finished, a calm comes over the wrestler that suddenly makes everything manageable.

“It’s almost like it takes the nerves away,” Peterson said. “You have all this pressure, and then you say a prayer and it’s all gone.”

Peterson said he has no reservations about his public display of faith, particularly around large crowds.

“I’ve never even thought about it like that,” he said. “I’ve never been embarrassed to show my religion.”

Peterson shows more than that on the mat, as indicated by his remarkable record that includes just two losses over three years. He was utterly dominant at the state meet, not allowing a point to any of his five opponents. He won by scores of 15-0, 8-0, 7-0, 3-0 and 1-0.

Peterson wrestled with a broken hand in the 2019 finals, but he had no such problems this year.

“I had some injuries during the season that I had to recover from, but nothing during the state tournament,” he said. “No drama, no injuries.”

After states, Peterson took a week off before getting back into training. He is now focusing on Freestyle and Greco in order to tryout for the Cadet World Team, which will represent the United States in Europe this summer.  

Between his studies and his grappling, Peterson enjoys taking time out to read the Bible.

“I like reading it,” he said. “I feel like the more I read it, the better life is. If you can follow what’s in the Bible, you’ll live a better life.”