Dean Peterson started wrestling when he was five years old.
In more than a decade on the mat, he has probably lost less than 10 times.
But last winter in the 106-pound state tournament’s championship bout, Peterson dropped a close decision, 6-3.
The Saint John Vianney High School freshman had nightmares about the loss for a year.
“I’d replay it over and over. Sometimes I’d even win,” he said. “But then I’d wake up and realize I lost.”
As a sophomore this winter, the loss drove Peterson to reach the 113-pound championship at the state tournament at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. And this time he earned the close decision, 3-2, over Emerson Junior-Senior High School’s Nick Babin.
With the victory, Peterson won his first state championship and the first individual state title in Saint John Vianney wrestling history. He also finished the season undefeated at 35-0.
“I stayed calm going into the championship,” Peterson said. “Last year I was so excited that I tired myself out.”
But this was not some neat and easy redemption story. In the first round at Boardwalk Hall on Feb. 28, Peterson fell on a knuckle on his right hand.
He popped up and kept wrestling, but his hand throbbed. Peterson tried to shake the pain off but it only got worse.
“I thought, ‘Oh man, there might actually be something wrong,'” he said.
Wrestling on adrenaline, Peterson earned a 9-0 major decision and advanced. But after the match, his hand swelled “to the size of a beach ball,” he said.
The sophomore iced his hand to mitigate the swelling and took a couple Advil pills to numb the pain. Even though the hand was clearly broken, Peterson never thought about pulling out of the tournament. He knew he would get a month off after the season, so his hand would have time to heal.
But on the night of Feb. 28 into the morning of March 1, Peterson couldn’t stop his injury from bothering him. The sophomore only got about four hours of sleep before rising for weigh-ins at 6 a.m.
Peterson won both of his matches anyway, and by convincing decisions, 7-2 and 12-1.
“I was thinking, ‘I came this far. I’m not going to let my hand affect that,'” he said.
By the championship, Peterson had to keep his hand away from Babin and go for points with his left. But after almost four matches, Peterson knew how to win that way.
“He’s so talented that he could wrestle with no hands,” said Saint John Vianney assistant coach Tony Caravella.
Now, Peterson will get that month off to heal. And instead of having nightmares, he will have dreams.
“Ever since I was little I wanted to be a four-time state champ,” Peterson said. “It’s time to be a three time champ now.”
Peterson should become the best wrestler in Saint John Vianney history. But his impact at the Holmdel school could transcend individual accomplishments.
Caravella and the Lancers’ head coach, Dennis D’Andrea, built a wrestling powerhouse at their last stop, Brick Memorial High School. Caravella was the head man and D’Andrea his chief assistant when Brick Memorial won numerous state group titles.
They took over at Saint John Vianney in 2014 and started building that Holmdel school’s program into a heavyweight, too.
The Lancers had one state place winner in the 42 years before the coaches arrived. They have produced seven in the six years since.
But Peterson’s state title really put the school on the New Jersey wrestling map. After the sophomore’s victory, the parents of talented middle school wrestlers started calling Caravella.
“Dean broke the ceiling,” Caravella said.