Jim O’Donnell has spent many early mornings over the past two decades at Moonlight Beach fixing volleyball nets, raking the sand and prepping the courts in other ways.
The countless hours he has donated to bettering local volleyball haven’t gone unnoticed. To many, he’s known as “the mayor of Moonlight Beach.”
“It’s a lot of work, and sometimes I wonder why I do this,” O’Donnell said. “But when I’m out here playing and hanging out with everyone, I really love it.”
O’Donnell said Moonlight Beach has a tight-knit volleyball community that can’t be found elsewhere. Though shoulder surgery sidelined him 10 months ago, he still came down to Moonlight to hang out with friends.
“You get everyone here, from pros to older players to people in their teens — a mix of friendly people,” O’Donnell said. He added that Moonlight has an atmosphere “you just don’t get at other beaches.”
Besides prepping the Moonlight courts, he’s a liaison between the volleyball community and city of Encinitas. He has communicated, for instance, volleyball players’ desire for more beach courts.
Moonlight Beach has three volleyball courts, often not enough for the growing sport.
“That’s been a consistent struggle — more volleyball courts in the city,” O’Donnell said. “We make do, but we could use more.”
He added: “Hopefully, a solution can be worked out.”
And likewise, when city staff members want to notify players of temporary court closures or anything else, they reach out to O’Donnell.
He also helps organize many of the volleyball get-togethers at Moonlight. He said the Fourth of July meetup is particularly popular — and important, too, because players kick in money for netting and other supplies for the courts.
O’Donnell may be known as “the mayor of Moonlight,” but he downplayed his contributions.
“I’m more of a glorified maintenance man than anything,” he said with a laugh.
But that’s not so, said Greg Lyle, a longtime friend and Moonlight Beach volleyball player.
“He’s always down there with his toolbox, fixing up things,” Lyle said, adding: “If every beach had a Jim O’Donnell, beaches would be in much better shape. People appreciate that he takes it upon himself to do so much.”
Lyle said it’s important to keep up the courts. Otherwise, nets break or twist. Or the sand becomes uneven, rendering the courts unfit for play.
And to top it off, said Lyle, O’Donnell is a nice guy, strong player and good representative of Moonlight Beach volleyball.
O’Donnell said he’s not exactly sure who started the “mayor” moniker. The name began as a joke, because he was always at Moonlight, but over time it has become something of an honorary title.
“People would say, “Oh, ask the mayor over there,’” O’Donnell said with a laugh.
He started playing at Moonlight Beach about three decades ago. Much has changed, he said. Notably, beach volleyball has exploded in popularity, locally and nationally.
And recently, a $4.5 million renovation project at Moonlight Beach, which included new facilities and moving the volleyball courts, transformed the area.
However, some things remain the same. The volleyball community “is still very tight-knit,” O’Donnell said.
The sport goes back a ways at Moonlight Beach, he said. In 1952, locals planted the first volleyball poles at the center of the beach. Three years later, volleyball players cut down eucalyptus trees and fashioned them into the spot’s first permanent poles.
Throughout the years, many pros have honed their craft there. Yet the vibe remains mellow, O’Donnell said.
“It’s not about what you’ve done, but who you are out here,” he said.
O’Donnell, who lives in Leucadia, once lived a stone’s throw from Moonlight Beach. While a bit more of a trek, he’s still out there early on the weekends, raking away.
“I just like seeing the people playing and having a good time,” he said. “It’s a love of the game.”