OSWEGO — Derek Kohut recently became the second boys lacrosse player in Oswego High School history to be selected as an Academic All-American by US Lacrosse, a recognition that culminated four years of determination on the field and in the classroom while quietly battling each day to maintain good health.
Kohut — a graduating senior who will play NCAA men’s lacrosse for Division II Mercyhurst on an academic and athletic scholarship next year — excelled as a four-year varsity starting defender for the Buccaneers and as a member of the National Honor Society while working daily to treat Ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that attacks the large intestine.
Kohut plans to study sports medicine while continuing his lacrosse career at Mercyhurst and has gained early acceptance to Lake Erie College of Ausiopathic Medicine, assuring he will move on to medical school upon graduation if he maintains the required grade-point average.
“I liked that award because it shows that not only could we get it done on the lacrosse field but in the classroom as well, which to me is more important,” said Kohut, the son of Pstachu and Wendy Kohut.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy but the thing that keeps me going is knowing that there are worse things that kids my age have to deal with, a lot worse than Ulcerative colitis,” he added. “But it can be tough, I have to make sure that’s in order first then I make sure my grades are in order and then my sports, so it’s one more thing to tack onto that long list.”
Kohut was diagnosed with UC in fall 2016 at the start of his sophomore year, and at his worst, Kohut said he was using the restroom 13 times per day and had lost 25 pounds.
He was prescribed medication that masked the symptoms and helped him to feel better, but had multiple flare-ups before switching to his current treatment plan last August.
Kohut made it through his senior year without any kind of relapse and is now taking his medication independently once per day, as opposed to three times daily with the aid of his parents as he did initially.
“I was doing pretty bad there but then I got a good doctor, Dr. Wali at Upstate in Syracuse, and he got me fixed right up so now I’m doing a lot better,” Kohut said. “I’ve been bouncing around on some different medications since then and now I found one that works.”
Kohut and his father described his case of UC as “relatively moderate.” The disease occurs in 238 per every 100,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is in the same family of chronic digestive illnesses as Crohn’s Disease.
“These medications can go 20 years, or it can go 20 weeks and not work any more, it’s always changing,” Pstachu Kohut said.
“I was proud of him because (the Academic All-American honor) kind of culminated all of his hard work, especially with his illness, because you’ve got to work twice as hard as the next guy,” he added. “You can’t just focus on studies or just focus on lacrosse, you have to keep yourself healthy so that you can even begin to get those kind of grades and play lacrosse at that level.”
Kohut wasn’t slowed during his standout career for the Buccaneers, helping the team to a 6-10 record with an appearance in the Section 3 Class B semifinals as a captain during his senior year. He also garnered multiple Salt City Athletic Conference All-Star bids.
Longtime Oswego varsity coach Robert ‘Doc’ Nelson said that if not for medical forms or a quick talk with his parents about his medication, he would not have known that his four-year starter was suffering from an illness.
“He never mentioned that really in four years to me,” Nelson said. “It was never an excuse, never a reason for not doing something, and obviously it must have been a heavy weight on his mind at times and for his parents for sure. But I don’t think the kid ever missed a practice because of it, never missed a game, so I think that speaks well to him and to his toughness.”
Nelson called Kohut into his office after practice one day late in the season to inform him privately of the impending US Lacrosse Academic All-American honor, which was announced earlier this month.
Kohut joined 2012 graduate John Phillips, also a long-pole defenseman, as the only Oswego players to receive the distinguished honor. Phillips went on to play four years of college lacrosse at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, serving as team captain as a junior and senior, and was a three-time Liberty League All-Academic selection.
“I was in shock really, because there has only been one other person in (Oswego) boys lacrosse history to get this award,” Kohut said. “It was pretty exciting when (Nelson) told me the history of it and kind of sharing that moment with him because he’s been around with this program a long time and it’s cool to see that he can still lift his players up to getting awards like that.”
Kohut verbally committed late last summer to play for Division II powerhouse Mercyhurst — a perennial contender that most recently won the national championship in 2011 — and signed his national letter of intent last November.
Kohut sent about 20 emails to different college coaches detailing his travel lacrosse schedule a few years ago and eventually opened a line of communication with Mercyhurst head coach Chris Ryan.
After several discussions and two on-campus visits, Kohut said he chose Mercyhurst due to the team and overall community environment, its reputable sports medicine program, and said he was eager to play for Ryan whom he described as “a man with a plan.”
“I know there is a lot more to lacrosse that I haven’t been exposed to yet and I can’t wait to get to that next level and receive even more coaching from coach Ryan and the rest of the Mercyhurst staff,” Kohut said. “I’ve only touched the tip of that iceberg and I can’t wait to go right out into the middle of it and gain all the knowledge I can.”
Kohut has played for various club teams since he picked up the sport around the age of five. He has played for the Upstate Mavericks, CNY Roadhawks and Upstate Salt Kings, and competed in travel tournaments in Canada, Delaware, Maryland, and throughout the region.
Kohut made the upstate team for the Under Armour All-American Lacrosse Classic Underclass Tournament last summer, and said he believed that his presence in that prestigious showcase helped prompt the scholarship offer from Mercyhurst during their ongoing recruitment.
Kohut will stay active this summer by playing box lacrosse for the Onondaga Redhawks and participating in the Syracuse summer recreation league that features several former and current college players from the area.
“He started as a freshman, so that speaks well to his talent, and the fact that he’s seen a lot of lacrosse through all of the tournaments and different teams that he has been on, he just brought a certain level of experience to the team that other kids didn’t have,” Nelson said. “It’s not that he’s seen it all, but he’s seen a lot, and he has a good lacrosse IQ and the physical skills to go with it.”
Kohut’s athletic ambitions started with hockey and he was also a varsity mainstay in that sport for the Buccaneers. He played for various club teams for about 14 years before focusing most of his offseason energy on lacrosse, and won a state championship with the Syracuse Nationals Peewee hockey club.
Kohut said he fell in love with lacrosse when he started playing defense and converted to playing with the long pole as a fifth-grader.
“Oswego lacrosse has helped me all the way up through, from being a little guy up through this past year, growing up and playing with a lot of the same guys,” Kohut said. “The program means a lot to me and I hope with the years to come, with my free time, I can help give back to that program and help teach the young kids coming through how to play defense.”