Remarkable rebound: With rare condition, Dyson Koehler returns from surgery to boost Weber State basketball
OGDEN — As recently as four months ago, a medical battle reached its apex for Dyson Koehler and it seemed the third-year player for Weber State men’s basketball may not ever return to the court.
Now, he’s starting on the wing for a Weber State team that has won five of its last six games with Koehler permanently in the starting lineup. Koehler is a top teammate and glue guy for a WSU team that opened Big Sky Conference play at 2-0.
“I try not to take it for granted. I know in my situation, it can be taken away in an instant so I just try to give it my best every time I step on the court,” Koehler said.
A RARE DIAGNOSIS
Koehler, a Salt Lake City native who prepped at Jordan High School, had offers to play at BYU and Utah but ultimately chose to go out of state and began his college career at Cal Poly. But after one fairly miserable season there — Koehler played out of position for a team that went 4-20 in front of zero fans in the 2020-21, COVID-19 shortened season — he put his name in the transfer portal.
Weber State always felt like a good fit and Koehler ultimately hooked up with WSU coaches and returned to Utah to play in Ogden.
Not long after arriving at WSU, doctors discovered a blood clot in his splenic vein, which is the main draining vein for the spleen. The condition was treated and managed, and Koehler played the 2021-22 season without much trouble.
But in May 2022, Koehler said he began feeling extreme exhaustion and lightheadedness any time he played pickup games. He went back to the doctor and found not only had the first clot returned, but another appeared in the portal vein, which drains blood from the intestines, pancreas and spleen into the liver.
The National Library of Medicine labels splanchnic vein thrombosis — blood clots in the portal, splenic, or two other associated veins — as a rare medical condition.
It’s potentially fatal if undiscovered, causing enlargement of the spleen, twisting of veins and the potential of bleeding in the esophagus.
So in the summer, a first doctor attempted to break up the clots using a minimally invasive procedure that involved a balloon device being fished through the veins and to the site of the problem. It didn’t work.
“The doctor said it didn’t seem like basketball would be in the foreseeable future and this would be my new normal, not being able to play sports or anything like that,” Koehler said. “Before it was found, they said I could’ve died. Being on the right medication and everything, I would always feel tired and couldn’t play sports. But it was kind of a blur when I was being told this stuff, kind of a shock.”
A second doctor tried a similar procedure but entered from a different location. That didn’t work either. The possibility of Koehler’s basketball career being over was real.
“It was tough times. There were moments where I wanted to give up,” Koehler said. “I called my dad and ended up being on the phone with him for like 2 hours, just talking about life and how I didn’t know how I was going to get through this. He just said ‘just keep believing. You’re my son and we get through tough things like this.'”
The last resort was major surgery, though that carried no guarantees.
“As it went along into the summer, we were told everything. We were told hey, he’ll be back in two months to we had a doctor tell us he might need a liver transplant and he’ll never play again,” Weber State head coach Eric Duft said. “We weren’t getting good news … my expectation was that we wouldn’t have him this year at all, at the very least.”
A known procedure where a vein is taken from another part of the body and used to connect the affected area by bypassing blood around the clot with a new route, so to speak, was on the table.
Even rarer than this condition? Performing that procedure on an adult. Koehler said it’s typically done on children and the success rate for anyone 19 or older is not great. But a third doctor’s idea to install not one but two new veins connecting to the portal vein and bypassing the clots was a hopeful one.
The goal was only to provide Koehler with a healthy life. But he didn’t want to give up on hooping.
“I was always looking ahead to basketball. I was really hopeful and looking forward, I was ambitious that everything was going to work out,” he said. “So I thought basketball was going to be realistic for this year once I had the final surgery.”
Koehler was in the hospital for one week. He walked around and stayed active as much as possible, and his final evaluation was positive as he was released.
“By the grace of God, he was able to have a successful surgery and things went well. Once that happened, we thought he’d have a chance to play some but we didn’t know when or how well,” Duft said. “So we still had the expectation that he wouldn’t be part of it this season.”
MAKING BASKETBALL HAPPEN
Koehler was persistent. First, he and doctors had to make sure the new system was working. That meant (and still means) blood tests, scans to visually evaluate blood flow through the new veins, and monitoring how Koehler feels.
Also, his core had been surgically sliced into. So physical activity was limited as the season approached. In mid-October, he began jogging on a treadmill. In late-October, he could jump a little bit. When the season began in November, Koehler was playing basketball (via individual workouts) and lifting weights for the first time in five months.
“I came back from a scan after that 6-8 weeks and they said that everything still looks good, that’s when basketball was a full-go to me,” he said.
Koehler’s mental expectation that he would play this season, and his commitment to doing any physical activity he could reasonably do as he recovered, went a long way. His individual work on the court had him as ready as he could be.
“As he started practicing, it became apparent he was going to be able to help us and get back to the player he was,” Duft said. “Fortunately, now he’s in a really good spot.”
He was cleared to play as Weber State reached Las Vegas to play in the Vegas 4 during Thanksgiving week.
“As soon as I was cleared, I felt ready … I was still confident in my abilities,” Koehler said. “So when I first got to Vegas and I was cleared to play, that’s when I was like alright, I feel like I can play and have an impact.”
Koehler played 5 minutes in the Vegas opener against UC Riverside. Then, when forward Dillon Jones was held out of the second game against Abilene Christian, Koehler started at forward. He totaled eight points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals in 23 minutes, and Weber State claimed a 77-67 victory — its first win over a Division I team this season.
The 6-foot-6 Koehler returned to his backup forward spot and WSU continued to struggle on both ends of the court, dropping a stunningly convincing home loss to Utah Tech and reaching 2-7 on the season with a road loss against an experienced Cal Baptist squad.
Koehler was given a new role: starting at wing in place of senior guard Junior Ballard to give WSU more size, better defensive versatility and rebounding.
Koehler put considerable effort into improving his lateral quickness after his first year at Weber State, which has gone a long way.
“Last year, I’m going to be honest, I was a liability on defense. Prior to getting sick in the offseason, I was working hard on getting my lateral speed up. So coming back … I knew I had to bring some type of energy so I feel like I play with more energy on defense. I also want to prove that I can’t just be picked on on the defensive end. If you want to go at me, you’re going to have to work for it.”
Koehler’s improvements helped boost a team that was one of the worst in the country defensively and now suddenly has strung together seven straight above-average defensive games. KJ Cunningham taking the bulk of the minutes at point guard, and a newfound cohesiveness, have led the Wildcats to adopt Koehler’s you-have-to-work-for-it defensive attitude.
Since entering the starting lineup as a wing, Koehler is averaging 7.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, shooting 52.6% from the field and 35.3% from 3. He totaled 12 points, five rebounds and three assists in WSU’s big upset win at Utah State.
“Dyson’s a very smart player who really understands our system and how we want to play. He’s versatile, he can guard multiple players on the floor. He’s just a guy who has a simple, efficient game,” Duft said. “He’s a well-rounded, solid player.”
(And to Ballard’s credit, he went from averaging 8.5 points per game and shooting 27.5% from 3 as a starter to averaging 11 points per game and 54.5% from 3 off the bench in the last six games.)
Koehler is good at feeling the game. If it’s an open shot, a quick pass, a cut to the basket, he’s generally making the right play.
“I’d say I’m like the motor guy,” he said. “Whatever coaches need, I’m going to do it and try to put my team in the best situation to win.”
He’s quiet and low-key but, around his teammates, Koehler is talkative and is said to be one of the funniest players on the team.
“I don’t think he’s ever had a guy who’s played with him who hasn’t thought he’s a great teammate,” Duft said. “He’s easy to be around, he’s positive, he does his job, never asks for any glory, enjoys other people’s success. He’s a tremendous teammate.”
Koehler’s surgical procedure did not cure him of the ailment. It’s an ongoing process of monitoring and an ongoing acceptance of risk.
“I understand the risk and doctors have told me there will always be some risk, but there’s risk to anything you do. I’m comfortable with myself on the court,” Koehler said. “I’m still going to play the same way I did before. I enjoy playing and so I’m going to go out there and play hard every night.”
Duft credited Koehler’s doctors and the heavy lifting done by lead trainer Joel Bass and team doctor Clark Madsen to coordinate with surgeons and specialists to make sure Koehler could play safely.
“It’s something we’ll always have to monitor and make sure he’s feeling well, but so far he’s doing great,” Duft said. “Everybody feels good about it. There are going to be doctors out there who would say don’t ever play, but there’s always a risk. He desperately wants to play and the risk is low enough that there’s no reason he shouldn’t.”